Take Control of Your Fears

For me, the traumatic event was a mouse scurrying across my kitchen stove. Days later, the terrifying image of the furry, gray creature still made every cell in my body shudder, and I was unable to eat, sleep, study or focus. It completely affected my daily functioning, and I recognized that it was time to get help — not only with pest control, but on an emotional level, to manage my phobia of mice. I wanted to feel safe in my own home again.

Woman scared under sheets

Eventually, pest control came, inspected my home and assured me that the mouse had left. But that evening, I saw a mouse run into the laundry room and another into the kitchen. I screamed and froze, not knowing what to do. I began to panic — I started hyperventilating, crying, my chest started tightening, I was unable to breathe and my palms became sweaty. But at last, I was able to self-soothe and call a friend for support.

After the ordeal, I wondered, “Why me?! Why did the universe put these torturous mice in my life when I’m absolutely terrified of them? Is there a lesson I needed to learn?!” And then it dawned on me — perhaps what I needed to learn was how to confront my own fears, to reach out to others for support, be present with these intense feelings and to trust that I will get through it.

This ordeal also made me aware of the similarities in what my patients are going through who are dealing with trauma and learning to confront their own fears.

1. You feel like a prisoner in your own home or mind.                                 

While I felt like a prisoner in my own home, many of my patients who’ve experienced some form of trauma describe feeling as if they’ve been prisoners in their own minds for years. For example, many report having flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and permanent images of the trauma from which they cannot seem to escape.

These thoughts impact their entire emotional well-being and physical functioning. Just like some people can’t understand why I’m so afraid of “just a mouse,” many patients report that their family or loved ones don’t understand the type of mental torture they go through on a daily basis.

2. Confronting these fears is scary and we fight it every step of the way.          

I never believed I would have to deal with this phobia of mice. I thought if I ever saw a mouse, I could just run from it or avoid it somehow by standing on furniture. However, since the problem is in my own home, I’m forced to confront this phobia, whether I like it or not — and whether I’m ready or not.

And like me, many of my patients who are dealing with trauma have been running from or avoiding it for years. Even when offered the opportunity to deal with this issue, they may have chosen not to. Although, the more they tried to avoid it, run away from it or fight it, the harder it became until they were ultimately forced to confront it. This may have come in the form of losing a relationship, job and/or mental and physical health. 

3. Your fears manifest as physical symptoms.                                                                           

The mouse experience was very draining — both emotionally and physically. Emotionally, I was worn out from feeling scared, angry and frustrated. I was not comfortable in my own home. Physically, I wasn’t eating or sleeping, and I had headaches from the constant stress. I was always on the lookout; even just seeing a leaf blowing in the wind would be enough to increase my blood pressure. 

Many of my patients who’ve experienced trauma have reported experiencing similar emotions and physical sensations. They felt like they were always in a “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Physical conditions have included fibromyalgia, cysts on their hearts or pain in their back and shoulders.

4. It has to get worse before it gets better.                                                                   

Last week, I had a paper due and considered going to a coffee shop to avoid the mice. Then I realized that I was no longer going to run away from the situation. I did not want to be a prisoner in my own home … to a mouse. 

I recognized that I may feel terrified and would probably scream, start shaking and cry. But I also knew that it would all be okay. If that occurred, I knew the feelings would pass. This therapeutic process can be extremely scary and painful to have to sit through and experience. And I remind my patients that things have to get worse before they get better.

Anhchi Ly, M.S., health coach and psychotherapist