Helping a friend with phobias is possible. Learn how to be a support system, while still maintaining boundaries.
While phobias can be debilitating for many people who experience them, having supporting friends and family can help improve symptoms and make challenging situations better. Phobias are defined as irrational fear responses. When someone has a phobia, they feel excessively afraid of the trigger for that phobia. Even when someone recognizes the irrationality of the fear, they can’t control it.
An estimated 19 million people in the U.S. have a phobia that impacts their life. Causes of phobias can be genetic, environmental or they may be a combination of factors. While phobias are closely related to anxiety disorders, traumas can also lead to phobias.
Normal Fears vs. Phobias
It’s normal to have fears of certain things, and you may be more fearful of certain situations than others. So what it is it that distinguishes fear versus phobia?
A phobia is defined as a persistent, unreasonable and excessive fear. For something to be characterized as a fear versus a phobia, it should cause impairment or impede a person’s life at some level.
A fear of elevators can be used as an example. A person might not like the feeling of being in the enclosed space, although they use elevators regardless. That’s a fear. A phobia would prevent someone from ever using elevators or even panicking in elevators if they did have to use one.
8 Tips for Helping Someone With a Phobia
When you have a friend or loved one who struggles with a phobic disorder, it’s natural to want to help them. Help can come in different forms. Many people benefit the most from professional therapy and treatment. As a friend, there are some actions you can take as well. You can provide a support system and play a beneficial role in helping a friend with phobias.
1. Take Their Phobias Seriously
Anytime someone struggles with a mental health issue, including an anxiety disorder or a phobia, it’s important to take it seriously. Making someone feel silly for feeling the way they do is only going to cause them more distress.
Blowing off a phobia or making it seem like something the person should just “get over” isn’t helpful to them. A phobia can lead to intense panic, and it can significantly impact a person’s daily life.
2. Try to Understand
You may not be able to relate to what a person with a phobia experiences fully, however, you can try to understand enough to show empathy. A good starting point is to learn about phobias and how they affect someone who struggles with them. You can also learn first-hand from your friend as to what they experience due to their phobia.
3. Don’t Apply Pressure
You may be doing your best to help your friend, but putting too much pressure on them to confront their phobia or do something they aren’t comfortable with can be upsetting for them. It may also destroy your relationship.
Don’t try to push your friend or loved one into something they aren’t comfortable with too soon. It can be a gradual process.
4. Ask What Helps
Sometimes knowing how to help a friend with a phobia can be as simple as asking. They may know effective ways that you can help that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Everyone’s needs are unique regarding what helps them with a phobia.
5. Challenge Negative Thoughts
When someone has a phobia, even if they’re ready to make a change, it may be a slow process. They may experience setbacks along the way. You can be a support system by helping them remember their positive progress and showing them that they are meeting their goals even when it doesn’t seem like it. Help keep them from being overwhelmed by their negative thoughts by pointing out the positives.
6. Stay Calm
The last thing someone with a phobia needs is another person who loses their temper or becomes frustrated with them. As tough as it can be, work on staying calm regardless of the situation. Being a calming force can be essential for someone with a phobia.
7. Encourage Them to Seek Help
Different options are available for people with phobias including therapy, medications and a combination of both. You can research available programs for people with phobias and present your friend with what you find. You can also encourage them to take the necessary first step to make an appointment for treatment if they’re ready.
8. Set Boundaries
There is often a fine line between helping and supporting someone with a phobia and becoming a crutch or an enabler. While you can be a support system, create boundaries. Boundaries can help ensure that someone doesn’t depend on you in potentially detrimental ways. Boundaries can also help you protect yourself.
Additional Phobia Support Resources
Several treatment options are available to help individuals struggling with phobias. Individual therapy is one treatment option. Therapy for phobias is often behavioral and cognitive behavioral based. People with phobias can learn how to change their thought patterns and alter their reactions to certain triggers.
Along with therapy, there are many local resources for phobias and community resources for phobias. This can include support groups, which are often for different specific phobias. Organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of American have tools to help you locate a therapist or support group.
To learn more about treatment for phobias, anxiety disorders and treatment options that co-occur with substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village.
Wodele, Andrea and Solan, Matthew. “Phobias.” Healthline.com, July 19, 2017. Accessed January 10, 2019.
Nordqvist, Christian. “Everything You Need to Know About Phobias.” Medical News Today, December 20, 2017. Accessed January 10, 2019.
Smith, Melinda M.A., Segal, Robert, M.A., Segal, Jeanne, Ph.D. “Phobias and Irrational Fears.” November 2018. Accessed January 10, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.