“Mama, I want you to pick me up,” the 4-year-old voice whispered from behind the kitchen island. She had stopped cold at the doorway, frozen in ambivalence while her internal want to argued with its rival, but I don’t. She had committed with gusto when I invited her over to meet Fred, our gentle and obedient grand-dog. But when it came time to actually do it, her fear started screaming much louder than her will. 

Sweet Alexandra’s my buddy. We connect at a soul level. When we met last year, she broke free from her mom’s hand, ran over with arms spread wide and clasped onto me with a long, snug, and silent hug. No words were needed. I swear that little one intuits my very heart. Her mom had told me that she was scared of dogs and wouldn’t go near them. Of course, when I heard that, the calculations immediately started clicking in my head:

Terrified 4-year Old Who Trusts Me + Anxiety Expertise + Impulse to Help

+ Gentle and Patient Dog = Little Girl Overcoming Her Fear

There was no way I was going to pass on the opportunity, and neither could Alex! Step by step, she waded straight into her fear and refused to let it direct the show. At first she held back, raised off the ground in the protection of her mama’s secure embrace. Next she agreed to stand alone but continued to hold back as she watched her older sister pet the dog. She gradually moved closer as her curiosity and desire increased. Eventually she stood right next to me by Fred and, as if testing the heat of an iron, reached out and lightly tapped his side. No bite. No growl. Not even a sneer. Another tentative step closer, palm open. A quick pat before she yanked her arm back. Then a stroke or two, modeling her big sister’s method.

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Eventually, we both sat next to the dog, exploring the varied texture of the fur on his ears, his chin, his back. I gave my goofy Fred impersonation and spoke to Alex from the dog’s perspective, “I like you, Alex. Thanks for liking me. It feels good when you pet me. I like kids. Thanks for playing with me.”

And then (Oh, how my heart swells at the memory!) her eyebrows lifted over delighted brown eyes, and a giggling chuckle emerged from her proud smile. As you can see from the photo, I smiled too.

#FaceTheFear  #HelpingHeart  #ReThinkAnxiety #WantToButIDon’t 

Want to Try It Out?

The clinical approach I used with Alex is known as In Vivo Graduated Exposure and Desensitization. While I work with adults only, this technique works beautifully on all age groups for specific phobias. If you have a phobia that significantly interferes in your life, or if you are concerned about experimenting with this exercise on your own, please consult a highly trained mental health professional. But if you have mild phobic-like fears that hold you back from certain situations, go ahead and give it a whirl!

Follow these steps:

  1. Create a Hierarchy of Fears
    1. Think of various situations in which you would encounter the fearful situation. Include easy, moderate, and difficult ones.
    2. List the situations in order from least to most feared.
  2. Gradually Expose Yourself to the Feared Situations
    1. Starting with the easiest activity (e.g., Alex in her mom’s arms), put yourself in the first and easiest situation from your list.
    2. Stay in that situation until your anxiety fades significantly. You can either wait for your anxiety to go down on its own, or you might try using a relaxation or breathing exercise to quicken the process.
    3. Once a situation no longer causes you distress (desensitization), expose yourself to the next item on your list, like Alex did when she gradually moved closer and closer to Fred.
    4. Be sure you wait for the distress to significantly diminish (habituation) before you move on. If you don’t, you might actually strengthen the fear instead of weaken it. Yikes, talk about anxiety!
    5. Keep moving up your hierarchy until you are able to do what you want to do without anxiety coming along for the ride (e.g., Alex petting Fred).

Let us know how it works!

#KnowYourArc #TryItOut #JustTellMeWhatToDo #Desensitization

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