Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW
There are snakes inside my walls! I wake up some mornings with the thought, wishing it was merely a metaphor. But the snakes are real. At least the one skin we found recently was all too real, when it plopped to the floor from a hole our plumber had cut in the wall to thaw a frozen pipe. A non-West End resident, he was pretty freaked out to find a snakeskin inside the wall. Me? Not exactly.
I would not always have handled finding a snakeskin in my wall with such aplomb. Snakes don’t bother me quite as much as they used to when I first moved to our neighborhood — not after almost stepping on a knot of about 12 of them one spring day, having one slither into the house through a window air conditioner tube, and having my cat deliver one to me in her mouth as a present (she found it in the basement, which is even more horrifying than the delivery method).
I have even started to build relationships with a few of them — last spring I tore up some landscape fabric that a tiny snake was hiding under. The whole summer long he hissed at me whenever I walked by. I made disparaging comments about his size. It was our thing.
So, why is it that my life-long dislike (okay, fear) of snakes is fading the longer I live in our neighborhood? This is the principal of habituation at work. Habituation happens over time when you are exposed to the thing you are afraid of. The more experiences you have where the thing you are afraid of proves to not be an actual threat, the less fear you experience when you encounter the previously feared thing in the future.
Usually with habituation you notice an increase in anxiety when you first encounter the object of your fear. But then, as you stay in the situation, you notice that the anxiety does not last. Over time, you build more confidence in your ability to handle the feelings, and with practice the initial anxiety abates.
You might wonder why habituation does not always work. After all, there are plenty of us in the neighborhood who see lots of snakes every year and still are terrified of them. The reason is typically that if we encounter something that we are afraid of only briefly, without allowing ourselves to experience the anxiety reducing while in the presence of the feared thing, we won’t experience habituation.
Since our natural response to fear is to avoid the thing we are afraid of, we often do not have many opportunities to overcome our fears unless we consciously seek them out. Instead, by naturally avoiding the things we are afraid of, we make the fear worse. The more experiences we have where we avoid encountering something that we are afraid of, the more we reinforce the idea that we can’t handle it, sharpening our fear.
When you get too stuck in avoiding your fears, you sometimes need to force yourself to seek habituation. When we do this in therapy, it is called exposure therapy, and it is highly effective for addressing a lot of fears, including those related to traumatic experiences. One word of warning: if you have experienced a traumatic event, such as a situation where you felt violated or like your or someone else’s life was in danger, do not try to induce habituation on your own, which could make it worse. Confronting intense trauma in this way should be done with a professional.
But when it comes to something like a fear of snakes, if you don’t want to wait for the inevitable visits to your house or yard to gradually desensitize you to them, you might want to speed along the process of habituation on your own. You could start by learning more about snakes, looking at pictures of them, or talking about them. You could even ask your neighbors for their best snake stories. I’m sure they have plenty.
Erin Brandel Dykhuizen, MA, MSW, LICSW is a psychotherapist living and working in the West Seventh neighborhood. You can learn more about her work at www.erinbdlicsw.com.