How to Overcome a Phobia
Overcoming a phobia takes patience, dedication, and courage—and a complete set of strategies that actually work
The sky was blue and the sunshine felt warm on my skin. I pulled on a pair of boots and found my younger sister playing in the orchard with the chickens. I was 12 years old, and she was 9.
We often walked across the paddocks to visit my grandparents — after all, we knew where they “hid” the chocolate biscuits (and they were well worth the trip).
During this particular journey, my sister walked over to hug our horse, and I kept walking through the grass. It was almost as high as my hips, and it tickled my bare knees as I walked.
I was looking over my shoulder towards my sister when I felt a sudden movement underneath my foot that instantly made my stomach sink. Horrified, I glanced down to see a Brown Snake (one of Australia’s most dangerous poisonous snakes) wriggling underneath my shoes.
It struck my boot quickly, but the fangs didn’t penetrate the rubber. I jumped a mile, screaming, and started to run. I escaped the encounter physically unharmed, and, at first, I felt relieved.
But afterwards, the nightmares started.
My imagination created a variety of terrifying experiences with snakes. One snake dream I had multiple times was about walking along the road near my house while hundreds of snakes writhed and wriggled on both sides of the road. I was terrified, but I felt like there was nowhere to go.
Growing up on a farm, I’d always been wary of snakes. I was mildly vigilant, but mostly I was just curious. They moved so elegantly, and they didn’t appear all that dangerous. When they heard anyone approaching, they’d usually slither off in the opposite direction.
After I stepped on that brown snake, I became hyper-aware that they could be hiding anywhere, and I was always on the lookout for an attack. I felt panicky when I had to go near long grass. I gave rock walls a wide berth. I leaned forward to check steps before walking down them. Whenever I was walking along rocky paths, I hardly looked up because I was too busy scanning sticks and making sure they weren’t snakes. I stopped feeling like snakes would hear me approaching and move away — I believed they’d wait and strike.
Gradually, I began to notice I wasn’t just afraid of snakes when there was a possibility they could be nearby.
- I started sweating if there was a snake on television. I couldn’t keep my feet on the ground because I felt nervous about the gap between the floor and the couch.
- If we drove past a snake on the road, I struggled to stop worrying that it had somehow slipped into the car
- I’d anxiously obsess over what I’d do if I encountered a snake with my dogs
- If I was walking and heard a rustle in the leaves on the ground, I’d freeze and hold my breath for a few seconds, involuntarily. When I continued walking, I’d notice my heart was pounding ferociously.
- I felt nauseous when I saw other people interacting with snakes
At first, these reactions didn’t seem abnormal to me. I felt like I’d simply woken up to the real danger of snakes. I thought my hypervigilance was justified.
When I was 18 years old, I started studying psychology at university. I was particularly interested in stress and anxiety, and it wasn’t long before I started learning about phobias.
I realized that my reactions to snakes weren’t ordinary — I’d developed a phobia.
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by a “persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity, or situation.”
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are five types of phobias:
- Animal type (snakes, dogs, birds, etc.)
- Natural-environment type (heights, storms, water, etc.)
- Blood-injection-injury Type
- Situational type (airplanes, elevators, and enclosed spaces)
- Other type (for example, vomiting or contracting an illness).
Different phobias can also have specific names. For example, a phobia of snakes is called Ophidiophobia.
If you develop a phobia, you’ll often try to avoid the triggers or endure them with a sense of intense fear and distress. This is part of the reason why I became interested in overcoming my phobia; I noticed it was negatively interfering in my life.
I experienced more stress and anxiety. I didn’t enjoy doing the activities I used to, like camping and swimming in the river. I was worried that if I was driving and saw a snake on the road, I’d reflexively take my feet off the ground (which didn’t seem particularly safe).
Over the years, I’ve gradually started to overcome my phobia. I might not ever master it completely, but I feel much more empowered in coping with it and managing my anxiety.
Before I share the strategies that were helpful for me, I’d like to encourage you to seek the support of a mental health professional if you’re dealing with a phobia. I’ve worked with several psychologists over the years and have also incorporated the knowledge I learned during my four years of psychological studies.
Strategy 1: Identify and Change Unrealistic Beliefs
Learning to identify and shift faulty and unhelpful thoughts is one aspect of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It can involve writing down thoughts relating to anxiety, recognizing inaccurate thoughts, and reframing those thoughts to become more helpful. This strategy was key to understanding my phobia and starting to overcome it.
In 2007, a study found when older adults with specific phobias completed a CBT-based program, they experienced a range of benefits. They showed significant improvements in phobia severity, anxiety, and depression. Participants were also less likely to avoid their phobia triggers.
When I began writing down my beliefs about snakes, I realized nearly all of my thoughts were unhelpful and the majority of them were also false!
Here are two of my distorted thoughts about snakes and what I learned when I started investigating the facts:
“I’m probably going to get bitten by a snake and when I do, I’ll die.”
When I started to research the likelihood of getting bitten by a snake, I realized just how improbable it was.
According to a ten-year study, approximately 100 people required treatment with antivenom in Australia each year. There were 23 deaths as a result of snake bites over the ten years (and three of them were snake handlers).
Looking at the actual statistics of snake bites helped me feel less afraid. Even though I knew it was important to be cautious, I started to see that my fears were blown way out of proportion.
“Snakes are lying in wait to bite me.”
It’s true that I stepped on a snake and it seemed like it was lying in wait. In reality, it probably didn’t hear me approaching, and it might have been curled up, asleep, in the sun.
Generally, if a snake senses a human approaching, it’ll try to move away. I’ve seen this happen multiple times — this summer, I’ve seen four snakes, and they moved away from me very quickly (except one that stayed very still and waited until I walked away from it).
It can be important to investigate your beliefs so you can see what might be untrue or unrealistic. This awareness empowers you to start changing your beliefs so they reflect reality (which can often temper stress and anxiety). When I noticed myself becoming swept up in thoughts like “I’m probably going to get bitten by a snake and when I do, I’ll die,” I reminded myself of the facts and changed the thought to “It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever get bitten by a snake, and if I do, there are effective treatments.”
Here are the basic steps for identifying and changing unrealistic beliefs:
- Write down your thoughts about the phobia. Try not to overanalyze this step — just write down anything that comes to mind.
- Identify thoughts that might be untrue or unhelpful.
- Reframe your thoughts to become more accurate and helpful.
- Write down your new thoughts, and read them regularly so they become familiar. It might also help to visualize your fear and rehearse your new thoughts.
- When you’re exposed to your phobia, choose a helpful thought to focus on.
- After experiencing your fear, it might be useful to review your list of helpful thoughts for reassurance.
Strategy 2: Gradually Increase Your Exposure to Your Phobia
Several years ago, I saw a photo of a snake pop up on my Instagram feed thanks to National Geographic. At first, I was tempted to scroll past as quickly as possible because it made me feel stressed but I paused and read the caption.
In the caption, the photographer (Trevor Frost) talked about his passion for snakes, and he made them sound like beautiful, meaningful, and interesting creatures. I was intrigued and went to Trevor’s Instagram, and it was filled with photos of snakes. Incredible photos. I clicked on most of them and read the educational captions, and, slowly, I started to feel differently about snakes — less afraid and more curious.
And so began my experiment with self-exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is considered to be the most effective form of treatment for specific phobias. It can involve flooding, which immediately exposes the person with the phobia to their fear. Although it can be effective when the person completes therapy, flooding can be traumatic and highly stressful.
I decided to try in vivo exposure, which involves confronting the feared stimuli gradually. First, I spent time looking at images of snakes and watching documentaries like episode 2 of David Attenborough’s “Life” (featuring reptiles and amphibians). Eventually, I went to a snake-education talk and held a snake. It was soft and slow-moving and even though my heart was racing, I stayed relatively calm.
I still feel nervous about snakes, and I get a fright when I see one — but the intensity of the anxiety has faded. I can see a snake, calm myself down, and continue with the rest of my day.
Here are the basic steps for in vivo exposure therapy:
- You might like to enlist the support and encouragement of a mental health professional
- Develop an exposure hierarchy for your phobia by determining the different levels of exposure you can explore — for example, looking at images of your phobia trigger, watching videos about it, seeing your phobia trigger from a distance, seeing your phobia trigger up close, and touching or holding your phobia trigger (if it’s safe to do so).
- Begin with the first level of your exposure hierarchy (such as looking at images of the phobia trigger). Continue this activity until the fear begins to subside. The aim is to stay in the anxiety-provoking situation long enough to learn it’s not dangerous. Move on to level two of your exposure hierarchy when you’re ready and continue.
- Try to avoid using safety behaviors. For example, I stopped taking my feet off the floor of the car whenever we drove past a snake on the road. Safety behaviors help release some anxiety in the short-term, but they also reinforce the fear of the trigger.
Strategy 3: Practice Mindfulness
One of the habits that tended to increase my anxiety was worrying about snakes (even when they weren’t around). I would lie in bed at night and imagine what I’d do if I was bitten by a snake. I’d picture myself in a range of situations, like swimming in the river, picking vegetables from the garden, or hiking, and imagine being struck by a snake unexpectedly.
I started to understand the more I worried unnecessarily, the more I was feeding my fear.
Mindfulness was a technique I learned as a helpline volunteer at the Anxiety Recovery Centre for Victoria during my second year of psychological studies. Not only was it a strategy I could share with people who called the helpline, but it was also a technique I found useful in managing stress and anxiety. I found it so helpful I even started a podcast about it in late 2015 called “The Mindful Kind.”
When I caught myself worrying about snakes, I started using different mindfulness techniques I’d learned, such as mindful-breathing techniques. Rather than agitating myself by obsessively thinking about snakes, I brought myself back into the present moment. It was a simple solution that made a big difference for me.
Here are the basic steps for practicing mindfulness:
- Notice when your mind has become focused on your phobia unnecessarily
- Let go of thoughts about the phobia by paying attention to the present moment instead
- Use a mindful breathing technique, such as placing one hand on your chest and feeling the movement of each breath entering and exiting your body
- Alternatively, try tuning into each one of your senses. Observe the different things you can see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Spend a few minutes noticing each sense, if you can.
- If your mind wanders to your phobia, gently refocus on the present moment (without judging yourself for being distracted)
Strategy 4: Implement a Stress-Management Plan
When I encounter snakes now, I follow a stress-management plan. This helps soothe my anxiety and stops it from spiraling back into a phobia.
A few weeks ago, I opened the front door of our home, and a Brown Snake slithered away. It must have been just outside the door, and it got a fright (just like I did).
I stood quietly and watched where it went so I could avoid the area (or at lease be wary) over the next few hours.
Once the snake disappeared, I decided to implement my stress-management plan. I took several deep breaths to start to calm my stress response and clear my mind.
I went back inside and meditated for a few minutes to process the nerves and allow them to pass. I simply sat down with my eyes closed and recognized my stress by observing my racing heart and tense muscles. I used a reassuring affirmation (“I am safe”). Gradually, the stress dissipated, and I felt much more clear-minded and less tense.
Usually, I enjoy finishing a stress-management plan by rewarding myself for my efforts. In this case, I decided to spend 30 minutes reading an interesting book (and this helped me relax even more).
Whenever I noticed myself reliving the experience in my mind, I practiced mindfulness and then tapped into my helpful thoughts (see strategy 1) — for example, “The snake will probably be long gone already” and “The snake escaped as fast as possible — it didn’t want to attack.”
There can be multiple benefits to implementing a stress-management plan. First of all, it can help you process feelings of stress, rather than ignoring or resisting them (which can often add to the distress you feel). Secondly, a stress-management plan allows you to tend to your stress in a meaningful and helpful way. Thirdly, you create a positive memory of dealing with stress effectively, which can increase your resiliency in the future.
Here are the basic steps for implementing a stress-management plan:
- Take a few deep breaths to soothe the stress response
- Acknowledge your feelings without judgment. It can be helpful to observe the physical sensations of your emotions and self-compassionately recognize your fearful response is a normal reaction to a frightening situation. You might like to complete this step via journaling, meditation, or quiet self-reflection in a safe space.
- Use helpful affirmations, such as “I am safe,” “I’m doing well,” or “I’m resilient”
- Observe the stress gradually fading away. This might take a little bit of time!
- Reward yourself by doing something fun, relaxing, or pleasant
“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.”
— Erica Jong
Overcoming a phobia can take patience, dedication, courage, and persistence. You might find it helpful to seek good quality support and to be self-compassionate throughout this journey.
I hope you’ll find a combination of these strategies useful, but, most of all, I hope you believe in yourself. You can overcome your phobia. Perhaps, not completely. It may take hard work and time.
But one day, you might face your phobia with less fear than you do today, and your efforts will be worth it.