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Published on June 25, 2019

woman looking afraid biting fingers

How to Stay Calm When Facing Your Fears

That spider in the basement was not just lying in wait until you came down to get those boxes. That garter snake you saw in the flowers this morning wasn’t out to bite you in particular.

But that feeling – that creeping things, once discovered, will run right over and bite your face off – that is part of the reality that phobias and fears play in our lives.

It’s a combination of truth – yes, snakes and spiders can bite us – and imagination run wild.

“Our evolutionary psychology affects us, so we naturally recoil when we first see a snake,” said Erik Anderson, CSW-PIP, Avera outpatient mental health therapist. “Everyone has that initial flinch. But people who have phobias imagine the worst-case scenario when they see what they fear. That initial feeling continues and can be overwhelming.”

Phobias and fears come from a wide range of sources, Anderson said, and may have roots in perceptions – such as claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces – or they might rise from trauma. They range in level of intensity, too.

“Phobias can expand and contract, and often will, over the course of a person’s life,” Anderson said. “A person may, for example, dislike the feeling of being in an elevator, but they still use them. Others might avoid them altogether. Some might dislike crowds, but when that feeling leads to limiting behavior – where they avoid going out altogether – it can become a problem.”

How People See Fears

Part of the difficulty with some phobias and fears is how they are perceived in society. Some fears are more common than others.

“Snakes and spiders are among the most often reported fears, along with enclosed places and crowds,” he said. “Some people are afraid to fly and others to speak in front of crowds. The intensity of the feeling can sometimes grow because of avoidance.”

When we’re so afraid of snakes we do not go outside in summer, we’re actually making things worse.

“Our brains will reinforce our choices, and we’ll develop a self-fulfilling sense of relief. We’ll feel like ‘Whew, we got out just in time and avoided a snake,’ when we do this,” he said. “And it actually keeps growing because of that negative self-talk.”

Planning Can Help You

While snakes and spiders are creepy, and it can be intimidating to speak before a crowd, some fears make no sense to other people, or the overpowering nature of them seems unusual. Anyone can develop a response plan to scenarios that frighten them, and include breathing exercises and positive self-talk as additional methods to cope with racing thoughts. When those self-help efforts come up short, Anderson said professional help can often make a difference.

“We can help people who experience less-manageable irrational behavior takes over,” said Anderson. “The use of prolonged exposure therapy is often seen as the gold standard in helping people regain control.”

That process works via steps on an “intensity ladder.” Patients work to retrain their response to things they fear.

“We also use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, such as having a formal ‘cool-down plan’ to use when people face an anxiety-producing stimulus,” he said. “Having a plan in place can really help people avoid over catastrophizing the feeling and let them positively challenge those fears.”

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