The problem with avoidance

The problem with avoidance

When people come to see me about their phobias one way that many of them have learned to manage is by avoiding the thing that they’re scared of. The problem with avoidance is that you need to avoid more and more in order to still feel safe, as Doug*, one of my first ever clients, had found out.

Doug was scared of having his face in or under water, and as a result had never learned to swim. He didn’t go to water parks or on barge holidays, but apart from that it didn’t affect his life. That was until a holiday where a difficult transfer from the boat to a dinghy in a very choppy sea saw him extend his avoidance to include trips to islands as well.

That still left plenty of places that Doug and his wife could go to on holiday, even when he started increased his avoidance again, to places by the sea in order to avoid boat trips altogether. At last he felt he could relax, free from worry about the water and boats, until a weekend away to a hotel in France. In the bathroom the shower head was attached to the ceiling, and the shower cubicle was so small that Doug was forced to stand underneath the running water.

Doug coped with this the way he’d always coped – by using avoidance to make sure that it never came up. Every time they went away Doug would check the internet for a picture of the shower, or ring the hotel and ask, before booking it. This worked well enough up until the point that he wouldn’t book the hotel that his wife wanted to stay at for their anniversary because he couldn’t find out about the showers – there were no pictures, and he couldn’t get an answer he was happy with from the hotel.

This was when Doug realised that even though he’d taken small steps every time his avoidance had reached a point where it was completely distorting his behaviour. He had a clear memory of the incident that had triggered his fear of water and getting his face wet – falling into a rock pool when he was seven. By getting him to imagine watching the experience as a film, backwards and forwards, we took all of the fear out if it and left it as just another memory.

Almost as soon as we reached the end of this Doug bolted out of his chair and ran into the cloakroom. Being new then I was a little worried about what had happened until a grinning Doug walked back in. The feeling of his phobia having gone was so strong that he had rushed off to put his face into a basin full of water because, as he told me, “at long last I know I can”.

*Doug’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.

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