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How to support a loved one with a phobia

Another post where I was unsure of what image to use: so here's one of me looking pensive from three years ago. 

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. Throughout the blogosphere and on social media I seen educational articles, people sharing their stories and plenty of supportive chat. In fact, over the last few years I have seen a lot more people come forward with their experiences of mental health and much more awareness around issues such as eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

However, it does upset me the lack of conversation surrounding the mental health issue that follows me around in my day-to-day life, and that's phobias. Since about the age of 10 I have had what you would classify as a phobia - I had an intense dislike of my now-phobia since early childhood but a bad experience in late primary school propelled it into phobia-territory. 

You might not have even been aware that I have a phobia. I've been embarrassed by it for over a decade and I've become accustomed to society not being supportive. But with more and more people speaking openly about their experiences with mental health, I'm finding myself becoming more open and confidence about sharing my story. Society won't change and we won't get closer to removing the stigma of mental ill health if we don't share our experiences. 

I might write more about phobias in the future, however to start off with I'm going to share with you today what you can personally do to help a loved one who lives with a phobia. 

Understand the difference between a fear and a phobia

When I tell people I have a phobia I regularly word it as "an actual phobia". The reason for this is that phobia is a ridiculously miss-used word and I need to make sure people take it seriously. I shouldn't have to do that, society should learn to get the words fear and phobia the correct way round. A phobia is a mental health condition that causes panic attacks, fainting, avoidance of situations, or even a level of panic that makes sufferers scared to leave their home. A fear doesn't cause any of that.

I think anyone who has ever been around me when I've come into contact with my phobia knows I don't have some run-of-the-mill fear. Just saying.

Don't laugh at their phobia

You can perhaps call me 'lucky' that my phobia is one of the common ones. And by lucky I mean that people won't laugh at it. But you can have a phobia of absolutely anything - and the more obscure the more embarrassing it can get. Don't ever laugh, no matter how mad it might sound.

Have a chat with them

For some phobia sufferers it might be difficult to open up, however I've personally always been really touched by friends who make the effort to understand exactly how mine personal manifests itself. Things to ask include how severe it is, what triggers it, any avoidance strategies and how they react when they come into contact. If you want to approach the subject a good opening line "I want to be fully supportive of your phobia, and would like to chat so I know what I can do to help avoid contact and also be prepared for what to do when you possibly do come into contact".

Avoid situations where they could come into contact with their phobia

Don't suggest that film you know has their trigger or remember to hide an ornament away if they're staying for that weekend. It's not going to effect your life too much if you have to double check your house for triggers but for them, it's the difference between a panic attack or not having a panic attack.

Don't question any avoidance strategies they take to protect themselves 

I avoid situations that probably do look bizarre to a non-phobia sufferer. But most individuals who have a phobia will have a list of places or types of situations they'll avoid to protect themselves and avoid contact. Most of my avoidance strategies were developed because of a previous experience that led to contact, so I know there's a chance of contact happening again. Also, if they want you to proof read a book, magazine, recommend a film, or quickly walk round a shop to okay it for them, then do so.

(As an aside: I turned off images in my browser while researching for this post - that's one of my avoidance strategies)

Know what to do if they do come into contact

For me, contact with my phobia usually results in running out of the situation and sobbing. I can also feel uncomfortable returning to the room where it happened for some time after. But other phobia-sufferers might have a different reaction - from full-scale panic attacks to fainting. If you know how they react in advance and have had a chat about what you can do if contact happens, then you'll be in a better position to offer support.

Don't tell them to 'face their fears'

For starters, a phobia is not a fear (though it is similar). For seconds, phobias usually require the help of a trained professional for them to be overcome. That's partially what makes them different from fears - they can't be faced in the same way. If your loved one does decide to go through treatment, be there for them but let the trained professional do their job. The only time you should intervene is if your loved ones phobia is so severe it needs treated and they're refusing.

(Another aside: I did try and face my phobia by forcing myself to look at images - it made it worse). 

Use trigger warnings online

There's a lot of phobias out there and you can't possibly add trigger warnings to everything you post online. However, you can add a trigger warning for all common phobias. If you look up trigger warnings, it's recommended that they are used for common phobias however in practice I rarely see this being done (even by people who do use trigger warnings otherwise). Common phobias to be careful for include snakes, needles, vomit, spiders, sharks, and blood. Think twice about using these images without some kind of warning. 

Take their phobia seriously and believe them

Phobia is a miss-used word and it can hard to know if someone have a genuine phobia that can cause a panic attack or if they just have a bit of a fear. I myself have not been entirely convinced of some individuals claim to have a phobia, but I don't question it. If someone has a phobia, believe them, take it seriously and avoid putting them in contact with the object or situation that can trigger them. 

P.S. You might have noted that I don't name my phobia in this post. The reason for this is because I've had several assholes over the years who think it's 'funny' to shove pictures in my face (or even the actual object). This is one of the reasons I struggle with speaking openly about my phobia in case someone was to pull that off (as many have done in the past) and will not be identifying it any time soon. Avoidance strategies and such. 
morag | mo adore
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