Getting over a phobia — an irrational fear — is really quite simple. It’s simple because of our brains’ built-in ability to desensitize to things that cause discomfort as long as we don’t run away from them. The only drawback is that we have to be willing to let ourselves be somewhat uncomfortable, temporarily.
However, the process can be made do-able by creating what’s called a “graded exposure task hierarchy,” a list of things (challenges) that we will do in a very gradual way that evoke our fear.
It’s best to construct a hierarchy with the guidance of a therapist that is experienced in what is called “Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP).” Everyone’s hierarchy will be different but the idea is to repeatedly imagine, say, or do something that creates mild discomfort.
Once you desensitize to your initial challenge by doing it repeatedly, you’ll move on to things that are gradually more and more difficult. The beauty of graded exposure is that by the time you challenge yourself to harder tasks, they won’t seem as difficult as they did when you first created your hierarchy!
Let’s say you have a green football phobia. If it’s severe, your hierarchy of exposure tasks may go something like this. Your first challenge might just be an “imaginal exposure” – something that makes you think of the dreaded thing, situation, or person.
For starters, just writing the letter “G” might be all you can handle but as you write it over and over again, you’ll find that it gets easier. When that happens, you’re starting to desensitize! Once you’ve written a page full of “G’s,” you’ll do three more things. First, you’ll read the whole page aloud, then you’ll read it silently, and finally, you’ll record yourself reading it and then listen to it.
Eventually, the letter “G” will start to get boring and that’s when you’ll be ready to move on. Your next exposure might be writing, reading, and listening to the word “green” and after that, doing the same with “green football.” Next, you might try looking at black and white pictures of footballs on the Internet and when you’re ready, color photos (if you can find them!)
Next, you might print the picture and touch it. After that, you’re next task may be to sit down with a green football on the other side of the room. Little by little, you’ll get closer and closer to it until finally you can touch it with a fingertip. Keep up with your exposures to the “dreaded” thing and before you know it you’ll be playing in a green football game!