Help in Overcoming phobias: Why breaking habits is so important

Breaking long standing habits can be the key to coping with phobias.Do you live in fear of encountering a spider in your house?   Or does the thought of being out alone and having a panic attack keep you inside or force you to always have a ‘safe’ person with you?  We all have fears, but for most of us their impact is minimal.  However, if your fears disrupt your life and cause you considerable distress then you’re probably suffering from a phobia.   I’m here to tell you that these intense fears can be treated and overcome.

Causes of phobias

The causes of phobias are thought to be varied.  Many stem from childhood, adolescence or early adulthood.  Frightening childhood experiences like being trapped in a small space can create later fears like claustrophobia.  It’s also believed that we can learn to be scared or anxious about specific things if our parents were.  Later on in life if we have a traumatic, or witness a very frightening experience we can develop a phobic fear response.

Symptoms of phobias

Knowing where it comes from is interesting and can be helpful, but this won’t in itself solve the problem.  Perhaps the next area to explore is how your quality of life, freedom and mental wellbeing are affected.  What things are you unable to do?  How do you experience the fear and anxiety in your body?  Are you aware of any physical feelings when you come into contact (or even just think about) your feared object or situation – like breathlessness, a racing heart, dizziness, sweating, nausea, or blushing?  Or do you experience intense anxiety or panic, overwhelming terror, or a loss of control and urgent need to escape?

Experiencing some or all of these symptoms is common with phobias and very distressing.

Techniques to break unhelpful habits

As a phobia sufferer you are likely to have created ‘work around’ habits or rituals to avoid whatever you are afraid of.   Unfortunately by doing this we learn to be more afraid and avoidant which reaffirms the belief that we won’t be able to cope in that type of situation.

So a powerful way to tackle phobias is to break the habits we have created.  By facing our fears we learn that anxiety gradually lessens whilst also increasing our belief in what we can cope with.

Step 1:  Make a list of all the fearful situations you avoid or have to manage in a particular way because of your phobia.

Step 2: Rate each of them individually giving them a fear factor from 0-10.

Step 3: Taking the least fearful first, make a plan as to how you are going to break that habit.  Make sure your plan breaks things down into small steps.  It is important that avoidance is not part of the plan.

Step 4: Learn some relaxation and distraction techniques.  As you face your fears and start to break habits your anxiety levels are likely to increase.  Having strategies to use will help you feel more in control.

Step 5: Decide if you think you can tackle it alone or whether to seek support from family, or friends.  Always give this a go first, but if you’re not making the progress you want, there is lots of professional help out there - like counselling, exposure therapy or hypnosis.

Step 6: Take the approach of a scientific experiment.  Don’t expect perfect results first time.  Be prepared to learn and adapt – and seek support if necessary as you go.

Facing your fear

It’s important to remember that fear is a natural human response and triggers the fight-flight-freeze response that in times of real threat and danger may keep us safe.  However, with phobias our fear is often greatly exaggerated or even imagined.  If your phobia is impacting your life in a negative way, don’t suffer alone or in silence.  By facing it, and being determined to overcome it, there is no reason why you can’t greatly reduce or eradicate a phobia from your life.

Written by Louise Haylett, who is a qualified counsellor, working with clients from her private practice based in Wallingford, South Oxfordshire.  E-mail:

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