Facing your fear

Facing your fear

Telly talk

Fear lurks in the hidden corners of our minds, only to show its terrified face in times of utter distress. For some, this could be during instances of skydiving or bungee jumping. Fear of heights, after all, is one of the most commonly heard of apprehensions.

For others, fear may be associated with animals, ranging from the vicious crocodile and slimy snake to that adorable puppy, which would ordinarily melt you into a series of ‘awws’.

This is exactly what Animal Planet’s My Extreme Animal Phobia, which airs every Sunday at 10 pm, seeks to cure: an irrational fear that has taken on extreme proportions in our heads, to the extent of hampering our daily routines or making the simplest and relaxing of things, such as taking a walk in the park, a nervous experience. Take Marvin, for example. On first glance, he appears to be a burly, heavily-tattooed man whose appearance seems even more daunting when he revs up his motorcycle. He looks like the kind of guy who could command some fear of his own. But place a pit bull in front of him and the man is brought down to tears. Not because of some overwhelming affection for the animal, but simply due to fear.

For Marvin, even taking a walk outside with family is a nerve-racking ordeal. He calls out to his wife and kids as they make their way through a field, asking them if they were positively sure if there were no pit bulls around. Even if he does decide to join them, it’s never done on foot. Out comes the ATV, stocked with a hammer and a bat, just in case.

The show’s host and founder of the Anxiety Treatment Center in Sacramento, California, Dr Robin Zasio, offers two key characteristics that are indicative of someone with animal phobia, “The two primary things we would see in cases involving animal phobia would be avoidance and reassurance — avoiding places where they fear they’re going to come in contact with their feared animal and asking their loved ones for some reassurance.” The main factor, however, is to consider how such fear has had an impact in one’s lives: the more crippling its effect in one’s life, the more phobic its dimensions.

Zasio equates the nature of one’s fear with one’s brain chemistry, “If you gave me a ticket to jump out of a plane, it’s not going to happen. I’m not going to skydive; I have no interest in skydiving. That’s my brain chemistry. When I share this with people with animal phobias, some would say, ‘I could totally do that! I’ve done that before, it’s a blast.’ ” She goes on to explain how fears such as animal phobia take shape: “You could have a family history of anxiety disorder which could manifest as animal phobia. For others, they could be taught to be afraid, which is the case with a couple of our participants on the show.”

In this seven-part series, each episode follows the journey of three persons who undergo five days of intensive exposure therapy to confront, and eventually conquer, their fear. As Zasio explains, “Exposure therapy is a behavioural treatment designed to help people identify the triggers associated with their fear and to desensitise them systematically.” 

In Marvin’s case, therapy began with pictures and videos of his feared animal: the pit bull. As he progressed, his sessions were intensified. What started off as pictures graduated into facing a live pit bull puppy on a leash, in the park, and ultimately, as a final test, culminated in climbing into a cage with two fully-grown pit bulls.

A lot of how successful such sessions turn out to be depend on a number of factors. Zasio elaborates, “It depends on a person’s stress levels, their internal conflicts, how much time they devote towards such therapy and most importantly, their motivation.” There is an element of risk here as well. There is every chance that things might take a turn for the worse if the feared animal does attack during the course of therapy. The fear, then, becomes all the more difficult to overcome. But, isn’t that what this is ultimately about? Acknowledging the slight element of risk involved, and still summing up the courage to go through with it. Often times, Zasio adds, “One’s perceived fear is far greater than the actual threat.” Which makes me wonder if the thing to be feared is fear itself.

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