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Animal/Bird Phobias

Phobias are very common – it is believed that at least one person in 10 is affected at some time in their life. And phobias about animals and birds are among the commonest of all. Pigeons, cats and dogs can be a particular problem, because there are so many of them around. A severe phobia about them can be as disabling as any anxiety disorder. Even fear of rats, frogs and snakes, which most people seldom encounter, can be the cause of much misery in certain circumstances. 

Some people become almost prisoners in their own homes for fear of common creatures like cats and dogs, pigeons and other birds.

Some people are convinced that they will have a panic attack and lose control if they even see film of the creature they fear on TV.
   

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PHOBIA?

Anxiety is a human trait and most individuals will have experience of it. Anxiety helps with vigilance, learning and general performance but in excess, it starts to work against us as extreme self-focus and apprehension reduces this attention and performance.  Anxiety at the minor symptom level is familiar to virtually all of us and from Anxiety Care's experience, this often seems to weigh against an acute sufferer seeking help.  Embarrassment and shame at an 'over reaction', perhaps aggravated by the particular blending of emotions (such as anger, shame, guilt or sadness mixing with a dominating fear) that make up their 'personal anxiety' keeps the problem hidden and prevents this person from understanding that their response doesn't mean they are weak, soft or immature.   It is often not understood that anxiety can follow a continuum from mild to acute that leaves some people with 'liveable' responses but others deeply disabled.  With animal phobias, the vast majority of people will be at, or close to, the mild end of the line where the problem is, at most, irritating, but in no way affects their everyday lives. This can work against the severe phobic as people experiencing a similar fear at a low level very easily come to believe that the acute sufferer is weak or ‘over reacting’.

Severe anxiety releases adrenaline and other chemicals into our blood, and these speed up our heart-beat, sharpen our senses and heighten our physical powers. These changes prepare us for what is called 'flight or fight'- either to fight for our lives, or to run for them. A phobia is a disorder in which the body reacts in exactly the same way, and we experience the same feelings of anxiety and fear - but in situations where there is absolutely no need for  'flight or fight'.  The part of the mind that controls anxiety has, to all intents and purposes, lost all sense of proportion, and screams `danger!' when the situation is not threatening in any rational way.    No matter how harmless the feared creature may be, for a severely phobic person the fear reaction is every bit as real as if the cause was a major threat. People with phobias usually realise all too well that their reaction is irrational, but this makes no difference to its effect.


WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PHOBIA?

Animal and bird phobias can produce all the unpleasant symptoms of  'normal' extreme anxiety:

 heart palpitations
 feeling sick
 chest pains
 difficulty breathing
 dizziness    
 'jelly legs'
 feeling 'unreal'
 intense sweating
 feeling faint   
 dry throat
 restricted or 'fuzzy' vision or hearing.

In severe cases, people may feel certain that they are about to die, go mad, or lose control of themselves and injure someone, or do some-thing disgusting and humiliating. Most of all they feel an overpowering urge to 'escape' from the situation they are in. They develop an acute fear of repeating these very unpleasant experiences, and this is what starts the phobia: the extreme reaction that is eased by escaping from the situation, which, in turn, proves to that part of the mind that controls anxiety (which has little real ‘sense’) that the extreme response was good and necessary. Of course, these are feelings, not reality. In practice, even the worst panic attacks do not cause any long-term ill-effects, and people simply do not die, go mad, or cause general mayhem in the course of them.

 As said, the level of symptoms that people with phobias experience varies a great deal, from mild anxiety to very severe panic and terror. While some people simply jump a little when they hear a pigeon's wings fluttering, others can barely cope with the anxiety this brings. Some people who have full-scale panic attacks when a particular animal comes near them, refuse to go anywhere where they might encounter one. Others will not look at any book or magazine that might have photos of the feared creature in them.

In the early stages of an animal or bird phobia, people sometimes try to overcome their fears by brief encounters with the dreaded creature, usually retreating instantly. This avoidance brings a reduction of the tension, and rapidly becomes a habit, so that the next attempt becomes more difficult, and so on until they stop trying to face the problem altogether. Avoiding the situations that make us feel frightened ensures that we become more sensitive to those situations, and so 'conditions' us to fear them even more. This is why phobias can be such a big problem. Because we tend to avoid the things we fear, the fear can worsen very rapidly. To recover, we need to put that process into reverse.

The fear reaction is virtually automatic, and very difficult to control. In the early period of human development, it was a useful survival trait: as a soft bodied species surrounded by predators, we needed an instant response that would get us out of trouble, something that would not allow our inquisitive brains to let us linger, looking for the cause.  However, humans learn quickly and we can train ourselves to respond positively to threats, and not to react with terror to things which prove, with experience, to be harmless. Lion tamers, tight-rope walkers, scaffolders and fire-fighters have all learnt to handle potentially dangerous situations safely. If this were not true, we would still be cowering in the backs of caves.
   

WHAT CAUSES ANIMAL PHOBIAS?

It's hard to be precise, though sometimes an unpleasant experience such as being badly scratched or bitten, or perhaps barked at by a large dog, may trigger it off. Animal bites can be painful, and some carry disease, so we all try to avoid being bitten, but most people can cope with having animals around them without becoming phobic. Few really dangerous wild creatures are found in Britain, and the vast majority of domestic animals are tame and friendly.

Some people no doubt learn their animal phobia from their parents. If father reacts nervously when a pigeon swoops past him, the children may well do so too.  But on the whole, most people find that their phobia develops gradually, or comes and goes over a long period, and that no particular cause or trigger is involved. In any event, it is seldom worth spending a lot of time and energy on 'rooting out the cause'. The point is to learn to control the phobia.


HOW CAN I OVERCOME MY PHOBIA?

People with phobias have, as said, become 'conditioned' to produce the fear reaction in situations that aren't really dangerous. The best way to counter this is by 'de-conditioning': training themselves to react correctly. This is done by gradual exposure to the things they fear, experiencing the fears without running away, and so 'desensitising' themselves to that lash of anxiety which insists that only flight is an option. This process needs commitment from the sufferer.  Sometimes anxiety is so high, the person is so sensitised to fear, that he or she cannot contemplate resisting it. Basically, so much energy is going in to avoiding what is seen as an insuperable problem that there is nothing left, or so the person perceives it, for trying to recover. In such a case a short course of anti-anxiety medication might be useful, perhaps a benzodiazepine. This won’t cure the phobia, but it may reduce the physical symptoms to a point where the person concerned feels that countering with desensitising techniques is, at least, feasible.

... we have to learn our irrational fears,  but we can also unlearn them ...   

The idea of desensitisation is simple, and it does not necessarily require the help of professionals; but it does call for a fair amount of courage and determination. Family and friends can help make self-treatment much easier to manage, and this is also why many people prefer to join a self-help group where they can obtain support from people who have similar problems.

Anyone who decides to try desensitisation needs to draw up a personal 'training programme'. This means working out where they are now, and deciding where they want to be at the end, and fitting as many gradual 'exposure' steps in between as they need. (Hierarchical steps as it is known in the trade).

1. Fear of dogs

Here is an example of how self-exposure steps for a serious fear of dogs could be  'graded':

 Step 1:     Draw a small rough dog shape on a piece of paper.
 Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version you can manage.
 Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of dogs.
 Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
 Step 5:     Look at videos.
 Step 6:     Look at dogs through a closed window.
 Step 7:     Then through a partly-opened window; then open more and more.
 Step 8:     Look at them from a doorway.
 Step 9:    Move further out from the    doorway; then further etc.
 Step 10:    Have a helper bring a dog into a nearby room (on a lead).
 Step 11:    Have the helper bring the dog into the same room, still on a
        lead.

Phobias vary of course so some people might start at steps 6 or 7, or include hard or soft toy dogs in the ‘ladder’, if this seems more appropriate.

It is important to work out what exactly is it about dogs that frightens you. Is it their look? Their sound? The feel of them? The way they move? The idea that they might attack you? Or something else or all of that?  (Dangerous dogs do exist, but they are a small minority. Most dogs are bred to be docile precisely because people want to keep them as pets. Dogs bark but that is part of being a dog and is rarely threatening to humans.)

If you don't work out the precise nature of your fear, you may waste time trying to overcome something that isn't a real problem, or delay recovery. This does not mean ‘getting down to the root cause in infancy’ (if there was one), but working out the combination of things about a dog that make you afraid.  For example, if it is noise, you could watch videos with the sound off first. If it is being bitten, make a muzzled dog part of your ‘exposure’ programme.  Working it out, you may then find that it only certain aspects of a dog that bother you and you can then work on that.  As another example: if is it noise and size, you could start with a very small yappy dog, or a large quiet one.  Here you are only approaching one fear at a time, which is often the best way to approach overcoming a phobia.

You should also bear in mind that although phobias tend to strike 'across the board' creating a fear of all dogs, or even of all furry or hairy animals, overcoming the fears can be a much more piecemeal process. This does not mean that you have to go through a desensitisation programme with every dog in the neighbourhood, but if you succeed with a soppy spaniel, don't feel you have failed if you are still at a phobic level with the neighbour's aggressive Alsatian. Just start again on the Alsatian, at whatever 'step level' you need. The skill and confidence you built up on the first dog will help you tackle the second much more quickly.


2. Fear of cats

For a cat phobia, a very similar set of steps could be drawn up, just substituting 'cat' for 'dog' all the way through above. Cats can also be held on a lead, as in Steps 10 and 11, but it would probably be easier to restrain the animal in a cat basket.

As with dogs, you should try to work out what it is about cats that is frightening. Look, sound or feel? Or a combination of these? The way they move or jump? The claws?    And again as with dogs, don't be downhearted if you learn to tolerate a pretty Siamese sitting on your lap, but are still at a phobic level with the tough-looking ginger tom from across the road. Once you have desensitised yourself to one cat, dealing with the next will be that much easier.
   
NOTE: Cats often seem to choose the person who dislikes them most to sit on. There may be because cats prefer people who sit still, and don't look them in the eye; and a cat phobic is likely to be virtually rigid and speechless with their eyes fixed on anything but the cat!


3. Fear of mice and rats

It is almost a tradition for people - especially women - to scream at the sight (or the thought) of a mouse, and no doubt many children learn this reaction from their parents. This is strange, because mice are pretty harmless, although they may damage foodstuffs and are generally unhygienic. Like most animals, they are frightened of humans and generally try to keep out of our way.  Rats have a worse reputation, but both rats, mice and rodents like hamsters and gerbils are widely kept as pets because they are easily tamed and make friendly and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent companions.

Few people nowadays come across rats or mice in the wild, but here is an example of the exposure steps that someone with a severe phobia about mice might use:

 Step 1:     Draw a small rough mouse shape on a piece of paper.
 Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version you can manage.
 Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of mice.
 Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
 Step 5:     Look at videos.
 Step 6:     Find somebody with a pet mouse (or visit a pet shop).
Get used to looking at caged mice from a distance.
 Step 7:     Get closer and closer over a period.
 Step 8:    Watch someone handling a mouse out of its cage,
first at a distance,  then closer and closer.
 Step 9:    Pick up the mouse in a small cage or box.

You can of course join this list at any point, break steps up into smaller ones; or make up your own. With gradual steps and plenty of practice, you should be able to work right up to actually touching the mouse - and if it is rats or hamsters that you fear, you can draw up a very similar set of steps. As with all phobias, as mentioned, it pays to work out what exactly you fear about mice or rats. It may be the appearance, or perhaps the feel of them. Perhaps it is the darting movements, the twitching noses, the fear of being bitten, or of catching a disease, or of droppings contaminating food in the kitchen. Whatever you work out, those are the aspects of the animal that you should concentrate on in your exposure work.

As said already, phobias tend to strike across the board, so someone who fears mice will probably also feel the same way about rats and other small furry animals. However, recovery is a more piecemeal business as mentioned above, and you may find that you have become perfectly relaxed about pet mice but are still strongly phobic about hamsters, or 'wild' mice. If so, don't be downhearted, but go through the same process with the other animals: it will be much easier second time around.


4. Fear of frogs and toads

The frogs, toads, newts and lizards found in Britain are completely harmless to humans. They are not poisonous, and indeed do not even have teeth, though they do a very good job in the garden, eating slugs and insect pests in large numbers.    As with all such phobias, it is useful to begin by working out what precisely frightens you about these creatures. Is it the appearance? Or the feel? (Frogs are usually cold, smooth and wet to the touch; toads are rough-skinned and cold but dry.) Or the unpredictable way they sometimes jump? Whatever it is, if you are not clear about it you run the risk of spending time and energy trying to overcome something that is not really a problem for you; or as discussed earlier, trying to overcome two phobias at once (for example, touching and jumping) which will make the job harder.

Exposure steps can be very similar to the one we have already suggested for dogs, cats, mice and rats; though this time you may need to find a place where there is a pond and get used to being near it.


5. Fear of snakes

Snake phobia is very common and there is a case for thinking that it may be an instinctive fear that is part of our natural make-up. There are also many myths and legends in which snakes are shown as evil and dangerous,  and this probably influences us as well.    However, the reality is that snakes are now quite rare in Britain,  and few people will ever see one in the wild. We have one native snake which is poisonous, the adder, which lives in dry heath-land areas, but adders are extremely shy, and usually hide when they hear someone coming. Only four people have been killed by adders in this country since the War. In tropical countries it is a different matter: there are many poisonous snakes and they are definitely a threat to life. Snakes, incidentally, are not 'slimy' as most people imagine, but dry and solid to the touch.

An exposure programme for someone with a severe phobia about snakes should start with thinking about what exactly makes them feel frightened. The steps themselves can then be much the same as for other animal phobias:

 Step 1:     Draw a small rough snake shape on a piece of paper.
 Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version you can manage.
 Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of snakes.
 Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
 Step 5:     Look at videos.
 Step 6:     Go to a zoo and look at snakes in their secure glass compartments.
        Start at a distance, then get closer and closer. They can't get
         you through the glass!
 Step 7:     (You may not feel the need to go on to handle a snake, but            specialist pet shops and some private zoos are the place for
those who do.)


6. Fear of birds

Birds, especially pigeons, are a common object of phobic fears. This is a big problem for those who are affected, because birds are highly mobile, and although they seldom if ever enter a building except by accident, they can appear almost anywhere outdoors at any time. People with severe phobias about birds may find themselves confined to their homes, scarcely daring to open a window or a door in case a bird should swoop down.

As with other phobias, it is important to establish what exactly triggers the feelings of fear. With birds it may be the fluttering wings, the way they move, the way pigeons in particular walk fearlessly towards people, hoping for food. It may be the texture of feathers, or the fear of disease, or indeed any combination of these.

Once this is clear in your mind, you need to work out what you are capable of bearing now, and what you would like to be able to do in the future. A gradual series of self-exposure steps can then be put together, like this one for someone with severe pigeon phobia:

 Step 1:     Draw a small rough pigeon shape on a piece of paper.
 Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version you can manage.
 Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of pigeons.
 Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
 Step 5:     Look at videos.
 Step 6:     Look at pigeons through a closed window (if they do not come to your garden, or if you do not have a garden,  get someone to drive you to a place where they congregate).
 Step 7:     Then partly open the window and watch them. Open more and
more,  etc.
 Step 8:    Look at them through an open doorway.    
 Step 9:    Move further out from the door, then further, etc.
       

SOME HINTS FOR SELF-EXPOSURE WORK

The first step in the programme can be very simple - perhaps staying in a situation that can just be managed now, but for a little longer than before.

The steps can be as large or as small as necessary, and big steps can be broken down into smaller ones. But each step should challenge the anxiety a little more than the last.

Don't be overwhelmed by the size of the task. As a rule, the steps become steadily easier as you work through them.

Don't expect to be completely free from anxiety before you leave each step and go onto the next - it will go completely in its own time as you progress.

Make sure you work out what exactly about the animal is frightening. Is it the feel of it? Or the noise it makes? Or the way it moves? Is it the fear of being bitten? Or of disease? If you don't work out the real focus of your fears, you could be wasting time trying to overcome the wrong problem, or be making the work more difficult than it need be.

Reading about animals,  and birds,  including reptiles,  can help.

Do the exercises as often as you can. You are trying to build up positive memories to replace all the bad ones of being beaten by the phobia, and too long a gap between efforts makes this more difficult.

An hour or so at a time and repeating this every day is best. Waiting until you feel 'strong' or until you cannot avoid it any longer is not a positive approach.
   
Do enough at each step to raise your anxiety. You are trying to get used to a level of physical symptoms that you can manage, and where you are in control.
   
Keep a 'self-exposure diary' detailing the exposure work you have undertaken and noting down the way you felt about it.

If it is possible to find someone to work with, who can talk to you calmly and positively while you are doing the steps (and not over-sympathising or endlessly asking how bad you are feeling)  this can help.


PANIC

Many people with phobic conditions are terrified of having a panic attack if they should find themselves near the thing they fear (dog, pigeon, frog etc.) and be unable to 'escape' quickly enough.

Panic is an very unpleasant experience, and while it is happening it is very hard to think rationally. Typically, people who are panicking feel that they are about to have a heart attack, or go mad, or lose control of their bowels, or run amok and injure themselves and others. The urge to prevent this happening produces a powerful desire to escape from the situation immediately. In reality, the imagined horrors simply do not occur. Anxiety Care has never come across a single instance of someone having a heart attack, stroke, or brain haemorrhage,  or going mad as a result of a panic attack. People don't collapse or have 'fits' during panic either.

The worst that can happen is that they feel faint or dizzy and have to sit down. 'Losing control' is very rare. People do not shout and scream, or foam at the mouth, murder children or mow down passers-by during a panic. Even in the few cases where someone has claimed to have lost control, the reality is a little different. One person described to Anxiety Care how she 'rushed screaming out of the house' - but it turned out that she had taken the time to close the doors and windows first. Another 'kicked insanely at the car window to get out', but thoughtfully removed her shoes first to avoid doing any damage.

Panic is basically an internal event. It may feel as though the mind and body are breaking up, but the truth is that other people seldom even notice when someone is having an attack, especially in a busy place. They are too busy thinking about their own affairs, and even if they see someone run out of the park, they are likely to assume there is a 'sensible' reason - like being late for a bus. In any event, they will have forgotten all about it in a minute or two.

The boring truth about panic is that although it feels dreadful at the time, and although the overdose of adrenaline and other chemicals can leave a person feeling drained and shaken:

 panic does not cause any permanent harm

 it does not drive people insane

 panic attacks only last a short time,  and then they subside

 they subside irrespective of whether you stay in the `panic situation' or 'escape'.

Final notes
If you enlist the help of a friend or family member in the work of overcoming your phobia, read the booklet ‘Self-treatment for Phobias’, available on this website and make sure they read it too. Ensure that the helper has no preconceived ideas about overcoming fears.  Too many people favour the ‘in the deep end’ approach and you do not need to have the object of your terror suddenly waved in your face in the guise of helping.  If your partner is not sympathetic to your plight, don’t choose him or her to help.  Some animal phobics coming to Anxiety Care have detailed partners and family members who have used their phobic fear against them as a means of controlling their behaviour, or simply controlling their lives.  If in doubt about this it is always safer to believe your eyes than your ears.  That is, don’t listen to what a person says he or she is doing; turn off the volume and watch what they are actually doing.

Finally, there are no extra points for getting better the most painful or difficult way.  Choose appropriate steps; small amounts of anxiety are just as effective as large amounts in retraining that part of the brain that controls anxiety reactions.  Never be afraid of breaking up steps into smaller steps if there is a sticking point.  And never, ever use a sticking point as a reason to give up.  The only failure is not trying.

 


The basic reference work on which we have drawn is Fears, Phobias and Rituals by Professor I M Marks, published by Oxford University Press (1987)

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