What are you afraid of? Allow your thoughts to bring out something that could activate this emotion. How do you feel in your body when you’re afraid? How is your breathing? Are you tense? Are your shoulders perfectly relaxed?
If you have an intense urge to avoid this thought and you feel a strong fear that seems irrational, you may have a phobia.
Bravo for your courage! You just exposed yourself. That is to say, you have just mentally moved toward your fear rather than running away from it.
Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown that exposing ourselves to our fears is effective in freeing us. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s a bit like by going toward our fears, we could recreate a sense of security. We then learn something new.
Psychologists have long believed that it is through habituation (being present to the object of our fears) that fear disappears. Eric Morris, a researcher and expert in exposure therapy, points out that there are only a few studies that go in this direction.
He specifies the importance of making new associations that will inhibit the old ones (the inhibitory learning model) and of approaching what scares us with psychological flexibility (that is to say with an openness to new experiences, uncertainty or with open attention).
My patients have made me discover over the years of psychotherapy that the easiest way to access these two dimensions is joy.
Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose you have a crab phobia. Just seeing a photo of a crab makes you want to run away. If you want to break free from it, you’re going to have to go out and meet crabs. But how do you find the courage when you’ve been avoiding your seaside holiday for years?
Sharing attention with someone who isn’t afraid of crabs is the first step. We are often less afraid when we are with someone we trust. Why? Because sharing of attention or presence activates social joy that will help us regulate our negative emotions.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson in particular has long shown that positive emotions regulate negative emotions. With this trusted person who is not afraid of crabs, maybe even loves them, you can gradually look at pictures of crabs.
By discovering another vision of crabs, through the eyes of the other, you will learn new things. Gradually the crabs will associate with positive emotions. Van Kleef, a researcher working on the interpersonal dynamics of emotions, has shown that the emotional reactions that we observe in others allow us to create new emotional conditioning.
Watching someone find crabs ‘cool’ will help your brain associate crabs with a positive emotion that will counteract your fear. For example, you could watch videos of people handling crabs or warmly interacting with these adorable little animals, learning about their function in the ecosystem, or why some people love them.
Your brain will thus gradually learn this new thing. You will more and more easily watch the crabs. You may even discover that you are starting to love crabs and why not plan a holiday by the sea?
Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her practice, she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and compassion-focused therapy.