A lot of people have phobias.
And phobias aren’t just everyday worries—they’re serious, intense fears that sometimes (or often) interfere with day-to-day life.
For example, some people walk up and down multiple flights of stairs each day and avoid elevators because they feel trapped and anxious when they’re in an enclosed space (that, of course, is called claustrophobia).
Others won’t go hiking with friends—even on a trail in a park—because they’re too terrified of heights (aka acrophobia).
I have a friend who refuses to fly because whenever she’s in a plane, she can’t trust that the huge, heavy piece of machinery will somehow stay in the air—that’s aviophobia.
But new research shows that there’s a quick and simple way to temper any type of phobia. All it involves is a certain kind of self-talk…
This study looked at only one particular kind of phobia—fear of spiders (arachnophobia)—but as you’ll see in a minute, the findings can be applied to any phobia under the sun.
In the study, researchers asked volunteers who were afraid of spiders to get as close as they could to a real, live, hairy tarantula with a six-inch leg span—the goal was for them to eventually touch it, if they could stand it. (I get the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it!) They also measured participants’ levels of hand sweat as a marker of how afraid they were.
In the next step of the experiment, researchers asked the participants to sit in front of a tarantula and react to the experience verbally in one of four ways:
Use honest, negative words to describe your feelings and thoughts. For example, “I’m anxious and frightened by this ugly, disgusting spider.”
Play down your phobia and speak as if it doesn’t exist. For instance, “This spider is not so bad, and looking at it is not a problem for me.”
Distract yourself. Talk about something else altogether. For example, “There’s a TV in front of my couch in the den.”
Say nothing. This was the study’s control group.
Which kind of self-talk do you think helped most? If I’d had to predict, I’d have said that speaking soothing, positive words about the object of fear would have helped the most. And that is, in fact, the strategy that lots of people with phobias use.
But I would have been wrong! One week later, researchers retested participants, once again asking them to approach the tarantula and try to touch it. What they found: Though they didn’t report any less fear than the other group, participants who had used honest, negative words to describe their reactions the previous week were able to get closer to the tarantula than the other groups, and in the process, their hands didn’t sweat nearly as much.
You may not be afraid of spiders, but perhaps there’s something else that gives you the willies, whether it’s flying or heights or riding in a car or circus clowns. So here’s something to try: Whatever your phobia, instead of downplaying it or trying to distract yourself from it, verbalize precisely what you’re feeling and thinking, said lead study author Katharina Kircanski, PhD. In fact, she said, it may help to purposefully put yourself into a situation in which you must face your phobia and then do the following…
Do say (over and over again): “I hate flying, and this airplane is making odd noises that make me very nervous.”
Don’t say: “Statistics demonstrate that flying is much safer than driving.”
Do say (over and over again): “I am terrified of falling from this scary height.”
Don’t say: “I’m in no real danger of falling.”
Do say (over and over again): “This hideous circus clown is creeping me out, and I’m afraid that he is getting way too close to me.”
Don’t say: “The clown is just doing his job and can’t hurt me.”
Repeatedly putting yourself into a situation that scares you and confronting that fear head on has been shown by prior studies to reduce fear, said Dr. Kircanski. So if you regularly face your phobia and verbalize how afraid you are, your fear may gradually become a thing of the past.
Sources: Katharina Kircanski, PhD, postdoctoral research fellow, department of psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California. Dr. Kircanski conducted this research with professors Matthew Lieberman and Michelle Craske while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. The results were published in Psychological Science.