“Do one thing every day that scares you,” wrote journalist Mary Schmich in a 1997 Chicago Tribune column.
Her now-famous words are the inspirational poster quote for countless people today. (Just check out Pinterest.) But real talk? Facing your fears isn’t so easy. It can be, well, scary.
When it’s an intense, maladaptive fear — aka a phobia — it elicits an out-of-proportion reaction that prevents you from doing what you really want to do. Like taking that flight on your dream vacation. Or going to a pumpkin patch with your friends because there are too many people around.
An estimated 12.5 percent of American adults have experienced a phobia at least once in their lives. So what can you do when the FOMO is real and you’re finally ready to conquer that fear — or at least learn how to handle it better?
According to Michele Bedard-Gilligan, Ph.D., a practicing clinical psychologist at the University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt in Seattle and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences UW School of Medicine, take Schmich’s advice. What Bedard-Gilligan recommends is something called exposure therapy.
“Exposure therapy is the gold-standard treatment,” she says of overcoming fears and phobias. “That involves approaching the stimulus and having corrective learning experiences to realize that the bad outcome doesn’t happen.”
The idea here is that by repeatedly exposing yourself to a situation or object that scares you, you’ll be trained to realize that the worst-case scenario you were dreading doesn’t happen or that you can actually tolerate it better than you thought.
This doesn’t mean that if you have a fear of dogs (cynophobia) you should immediately visit an off-leash dog park and present your arm as a chew toy to the first canine you see. Exposure therapy is a series of gradual guided experiences, usually with the presence and support of a psychologist or therapist, that slowly but surely helps you confront your phobia.
For example, if you have cynophobia, start out with something small like talking about dogs and then eventually increase the intensity of each exposure. The next steps might be visualizing dogs, looking at photos of them and, ultimately, interacting with them in person.
The distinct phases in exposure therapy vary from person to person and phobia to phobia, Bedard-Gilligan says. Virtual reality and simulators are also effective in these situations to help replicate different experiences and interactions.
“What happens is you learn you can tolerate the negative outcome,” she says. “You can stand it if a dog jumps up and licks you. You learn it doesn’t often happen, it’s OK, it’s not bad.”
So, in the spirit of Schmich’s quote, we’re here to help you banish the FOMO and overcome your fears right here in the Pacific Northwest.