You Don’t Have to Feel Bad
- Category: June/July 2012
- Published on Friday, 25 May 2012 19:29
by Candy Potter
From Fear to Freedom: A CBT Success story
Judy came to see me because of a fear of dogs. Most of her life, she had been able to manage/hide her fear well enough, but she was tired of how it felt and frustrated by how it impacted her life.
To say that dogs made Judy uncomfortable would be a huge understatement. What she felt was utter terror: her heart raced, she felt like she couldn’t breathe, she shook, she froze, she felt trapped and she wanted to cry. In her own words, she was “totally terrified”. Sadly, Judy was also terribly embarrassed about her fear. She was generally a bold, competent woman but in these moments she didn’t feel like one.
Judy sought my support because more and more this fear was imposing itself into her life; she wanted to avoid the terror so badly that she had become hyper aware of the sounds of dogs or even their chains; she even avoiding walking down streets where she had seen dogs to stave off the feeling. When sitting in a park with a friend she was overcome by distraction as she watched dogs, hoping they wouldn’t get loose or come near her. She was ashamed when she went to pick up her daughter from a friend’s house and got trapped in the car at the sight of the family pet bounding toward her.
Judy was excellent at vividly describing how she felt. My job was to uncover the almost unconscious belief that supported her feelings. By closely going over a recent encounter with a dog and asking a lot of ‘what if’ type questions, I learned that Judy believed that dogs were highly unpredictable and likely to attack. She believed that they would especially attack her as they sensed her fear; she also believed that she would behave helplessly in such a scenario.
Now, the mistake that most people make is assuming that someone experiencing a phobia, anxiety or OCD should just somehow know better and just act differently. We say “don’t worry, my dog is friendly.” But this is like me telling you to drive down the road backwards without looking in the mirror or over your shoulder; you would think this is dangerous, you would either take steps to feel safe or you might do it at my insistence and feel terrified; this is your survival instinct. Judy’s survival instinct told her to be wary of dogs.
Our work now was to modify Judy’s instinct, which took a couple of months of carefully designed exercises and experiments. No, we didn’t do the thing you might have seen on TV, where she is forced to be exposed to a dog until her fear subsides. Instead, I helped Judy understand the nature of fear and the mechanisms that foster fear. For example, when we believe we are in danger, our instincts help us to become hyper-vigilant for any sign of a threat. In Judy’s case this meant she watched dogs for signs of aggression and watched owners for signs of being irresponsibly distracted. All this noticing creates a vicious cycle that feeds the fear. One of Judy’s exercises was to collect evidence that most dogs are friendly and to observe dogs for signs of friendliness; this change in focus created a shift in Judy’s emotions.
Gradually, through a range of activities, Judy started to think about dogs differently and more importantly she began to feel about dogs differently. Now, when Judy thinks about dogs at all, she thinks most are fun and lovable and she enjoys their company. She loves to brag about the time that she and a friend were out for a walk and a large dog came running at them. She firmly and boldly yelled GO HOME and confidently, she walked on.
Candy Potter is a college professor and a psychotherapist. She provides quick and effective treatment for anxiety and depression. To reach Candy call 705-689-4039.