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Overcoming Fear by Learning how to Eat the Rat

I’ve spent the last few years eating rats.

No, I don’t live in a third world country, and I don’t have some weird rat fetish. “Eating the rat” is a term I coined after reading a book by J. Gordon Liddy years ago. He was terrified of rats, so to overcome his fear he caught a rat, cooked it, and ate it! End of story— and end of fear.

Some of the rats I’ve had to eat over the past few years have included the fear of flying in a small airplane, the fear of tiny spaces, and the fear of having panic attacks. These fears were making my life miserable.

My husband became a pilot and bought an airplane, so I couldn’t travel with him. I’d freak out in small spaces, and because I once had a panic attack, I was convinced I would have more.

If any of this resonates with you, and you’ve been living a sub-par life because of your fears, it’s time for you to “eat the rat.”

How do you do it?

The first step is to identify your specific fears and the beliefs driving them. The experience of anxiety for any fear goes past a feeling; you believe it’s in stone that something bad will happen.

For example, my fear of small planes was centered on a belief that they weren’t safe. The anxiety I experienced at the slightest noise or unpredictable sound meant danger—we were going to crash.

I was afraid to get into small spaces because I believed I would be trapped and suffocate. I climbed a lot of stairs to avoid elevators.

People who are afraid avoid. That’s the worst thing you can do. Avoiding will only strengthen your fear! Using what counselors call exposure with response prevention, you can conquer your fear and “eat the rat” too.

Here’s how to begin:

Make a subjective units of distress list

List the least anxiety-provoking situation related to your fear, and then work up to the greatest. Here were mine relating to the fear of small spaces:

  • Seeing the elevator
  • Knowing I have to get in the elevator alone
  • Standing in the elevator with the door open
  • Getting in the elevator and seeing door close
  • Riding in the elevator with a support person
  • Riding in the elevator alone

Start “eating the rat” one bite at a time

Start with the least anxiety-provoking task. Exposure requires putting yourself in real life situations, so your first step will be to stand at the elevator door and feel the anxiety. Don’t avoid it. Sit with it. Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen if you get in (being trapped, suffocating) and how could you deal with it. You may have to do this for a few times before you move to your next task.

Take the next bite

Once your comfortable with standing at the elevator, move up your anxiety hierarchy list, making sure to prevent avoidance. Continued exposure to the feared stimulus (elevator) will eventually cause you to become accustom to your fearful feelings. Eventually, being in the elevator alone will become more and more normal.

Over estimating danger is at the root of many fears. My belief that small airplanes are unsafe is contradicted by statistics that show small planes crash significantly less than cars.

In addition, recent statistics show that 85% of what we worry about never even happens!

But what about more abstract fears like having a panic attack for no apparent reason. How do we handle that?

Through imaginary exposure.

Start by thinking about panicking. Create a scenario in your mind where you panic, and sit with the anxiety. Imagine every terrible outcome you can.

Now ask yourself: How would you handle it? What could you do? Then consider these options:

  • Practice deep relaxation breathing
  • Practice muscle relaxation
  • Stop negative self-talk
  • Use positive counter-statements to deal with your anxiety
  • Learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Talk with your doctor
  • Talk to a therapist
  • Go to an anxiety support group

To overcome an abstract fear there is really only one solution—acceptance. If you’re fighting against your fear, you’re fighting the wrong battle. Accept yourself fears and all.

Once I was willing to have a panic attack, I could shift my focus to how I’d get through it, and not the fear—rat eaten!

You may want to see a licensed therapist if your fears are extremely debilitating. Doing exposure is hard work, but the payoff is well worth it.

How about you, what rats are running around in your life that you need to start thinking about eating? What steps have you taken to conquer the fears in your life?

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About Rita Schulte

Rita A. Schulte is a licensed professional counselor in the Northern Virginia/DC area. She is the host of Heartline Podcast and Consider This. Her shows air on several radio stations as well as the Internet. They can be downloaded from http://www.ritaschulte.com/category/podcast. Rita writes for numerous publications and blogs. Her articles have appeared in Counseling Today Magazine, Thriving Family, and Christianity Today, Kyria. Her book on moving through the losses of life will be released in Fall 2013 by Leafwood Publishers. Follow her at www.ritaschulte.com.