I was on my way home from work, fuzzy from want of sleep and listening to a good song, when an eighteen-wheeler drove up beside me and I found myself looking at a ten foot tall picture of an arm being swabbed for an injection.
My heart shivered, fingers tingled, hands went weak on the wheel. Before I had time to remember how to react I was reacting.
You don’t have to let it scare you, I reminded myself. It’s just a picture. It can’t hurt you.
It wasn’t enough.
“You don’t have to let it scare you,” I said aloud. “Just a picture. You’re safe.”
“Safe” was probably not the best word for it – driving on the freeway, arms going numb – but I did not let myself consider the possibilities. I took a careful breath, not too deep, and I repeated it to myself again and again. You don’t have to let it scare you. You don’t have to let it scare you. By the time the next song started, my muscles were still weak but the danger was gone.
A couple of months ago I might have had to pull over on the side of the freeway, wait until the crying and shaking stopped and the blackness receded from my vision, but today I am safe. Pictures no longer have power over me.
Here’s how I reached this point, using the typical exposure technique as described in a wonderful book, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne:
- I came up with a happy place, called a “peaceful scene” in the book, using as much sensory detail as possible. Mine is the bedroom in my aunt’s log house, with a rectangle of morning sun on the blanket and her dogs sleeping all around me. I used to house-sit for her and it’s one of the most peaceful places I know.
- I came up with a list of ten situations that trigger my phobic reaction, ordered from least to most scary, #1 being something relatively easy to confront (looking at pictures of needles) and #10 being the scariest thing I can imagine doing (donating blood).
- I asked my partner to collect some pictures of needles for me, ordering them from least to most scary. (Apparently, doing an image search for “needles” is a scary experience even for people who don’t have a phobia. My partner is the best support person I could ask for.)
- I got completely relaxed, spent a minute imagining my happy place as clearly as possible, and looked at the first picture. It didn’t cause too bad of a reaction, so I looked at it for a minute or so, thought about my happy place again, and went on to the next picture.
- I continued in this way, alternating between the pictures and my happy place, until my reaction started getting bad. Then I reminded myself that it was only a picture, that there were no needles in my bedroom coming to get me, and that I was safe. I touched the screen to convince myself it wasn’t real. I repeated “you don’t have to let it scare you” like a mantra.
- I considered the process finished for the day when I could look at any of the pictures and feel discomfort or disgust like most people, but no phobic reaction.
Now every time I see a needle-related picture I start saying my mantra and the fear loses its power. Scary situation #1, conquered.
Step #2 in my list of triggering situations is to have a conversation about injections, because merely talking about it is enough to reduce me to a whimpering mess. Now, though, I have the advantage, because I have concrete proof that my phobia does not have to control me, so I know that I can beat it one step at a time. Most fears are habits, and even though a phobia is an especially strong habit, it can still be broken.