Adapted from Chapter 12, Bitch-a-Phobia: She’s Really Scary , from The Bitch in Your Head: How to Finally Squash Your Inner Critic, by Jacqueline Plumez, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.

Everyone is afraid of something – and sometimes The Bitch in your head turns a fear into a phobia, making you so terrified of a thing or situation that you avoid it at all costs.

The Bitch is so creative that she can make people phobic about anything from Ablutophobia (fear of bathing) to Zelophobia (fear of jealousy).

The interesting thing about phobias, is that they are usually irrational. For example, people are afraid of thunder, but thunder never hurt anyone. Rational thinking often doesn’t help, but a step-by-step exposure to the fear can be an effective cure. Here are three other important things to help battle phobias:

1. There may be symbolic reasons for fear and pain

A cardiologist used to send me patients who were terrified of having a heart attack. They felt heart pain, but did not have heart disease. It always turned out that they had heartache of an emotional – not medical — kind. Their pain was felt because some person or event had “broken their heart.” Once they realized the true source of their pain, they could come up with ways to cope. Similarly, neck pain can be felt when you are dealing with someone who is “a pain in the neck,” just as backache may disappear when you tell an annoying person to “get off my back.”

2. Slow and steady wins the race

To control any phobia, set up a step-by-step plan to expose yourself to the feared objects or experiences in a slow way to gain confidence. For example, if you are afraid of dogs, even though you know a cock-a-poo isn’t going to kill you, it would be scary to pet one, much less a pit bull. Getting too close to any dog would flood you with anxiety and increase your dog phobia. So you would start reading about dogs and playing with stuffed dogs in toy shops. Only when that is comfortable would you progress to patting tiny, helpless puppies, and then gradually go on to pat older puppies which could lead to touching tiny dogs. Any phobia can be cured by creating a step-by-step program where you progress from one small challenge to the next only when comfortable with the last one.

3. Hypochondria

Does The Bitch in your head make you think every little ache or pain means you are dying? And a visit to the doctor may only be a temporary reassurance. As Woody Allen once wrote, “How can I relax knowing that the minute I leave the doctor’s office, something may start growing in me and by the time a full year rolls around, my chest x-ray will look like a Jackson Pollock?” If you are afraid of a disease, The Bitch probably makes you try to put the thought out of your mind immediately. But experts say that an in depth study of the disease, while frightening at first, will show that you do not have it.

What to do

You can create a step-by-step program for yourself with any fear. Learn one of the many methods of relaxing yourself – deep breathing, meditation or tensing/relaxing muscles – and use it to calm yourself as you approach each step. Combine that with comforting self-talk, saying the same encouraging things you would say to a child or a friend, and you have a workable program to control fear. Don’t forget that mental health is not the absence of fear – it is acting in the face of fear.

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