Psychologists are taught to help their clients get over a fear of snakes during their first year of graduate school. This topic of taught in undergrad psychology classes, too, because the theory is pretty straight forward.
Few of us get the opportunity to help people get over their fears of snakes, or cats or dogs, or being in an airplane, come to think of it, because people seldom bring these problems into our offices.
I have treated more people for panic attacks than I can count. I think this is because panic attacks can immobilize a person. People have to come in to get help for panic attacks. They often have no choice because panic attacks can be paralyzing.
But a fear of cats? People can live pretty normal lives without ever addressing this problem. So they limp along, decade after decade, without clearing up the problem. They cross the street to get away when they see a cat. They ask their friends to lock their cats in a bedroom when they visit their homes. They sit, frozen, during a dinner party when the host’s cat enters the room, hoping the cat will go away.
But a fear of cats can be treated quickly and easily, so let’s clear the problem up. To begin, let’s acknowledge that being afraid of cats, in itself, doesn’t make any logical sense. The average cat weighs between 8 and 10 pounds. A cat can be held down by the average 11-year-old without difficulty. We can drop that age to the average 8-year-old if the child has grown up with a cat in the house.
But what if the cat is struggling? That’s exactly my point. 99% of cats don’t struggle. They lie on their sides and ask you to scratch them. Right… there. That’s the spot… They even purr to encourage you to keep scratching them exactly where you’re scratching them. You got it…
So what’ up with a fear of cats? It can’t be about cats, right? Right. It’s not about cats. It’s about something that happened in the past, and that fear got attached to cats. But it’s not cats in and of themselves.
Let’s look at an example to illustrate the point.
Details described in the story that follows are fictional.
Let’s imagine you have an aunt and uncle that live on an acreage outside of Calgary. Coyotes can be a nuisance, so your aunt and uncle keep a couple of dogs on their property to keep the coyotes away from the house.
Let’s imagine that your mother was concerned that the dogs on the acreage were too rambunctious and might knock you over when you were little. Let’s say you were 4-years-old. Your mother might have told you to stay away from the dogs. She might have told you the dogs were dangerous. You may have believed her after you got knocked over and skinned your knee a couple of times. Especially because the dogs barked a lot, which you found frightening.
Wait. What’s this story got to do with a fear of cats? Isn’t this blog post about a fear of cats?
This is where things get really interesting. Our fears don’t necessarily make sense.
When you were small, let’s imagine that there were also barn cats on your aunt and uncle’s acreage to control the field mouse population. The cats were smaller than the dogs, but you were 4-years-old, and you didn’t have much exposure to animals. As a result, your fear of dogs, which your mother encouraged, generalized to cats. Dogs and cats were both unknown to you. You learned to fear both.
And there we have it. Your fear of cats developed because you were exposed to rambunctious dogs that jumped on you at your aunt and uncle’s acreage when you were a pre-schooler.
Wait? Am I telling you that you are afraid of a 10-pound cat because you got knocked over a couple of times by a German Shepherd named Archie the year before you started kindergarten? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. Or something along those lines, anyway.
Your fear of 10 pound cats, which kept you frozen in your chair at the Super Bowl party you attended last weekend, is the direct result of the fact that you skinned your knee at your aunt and uncle’s acreage after you got out of the family Volvo when you were four-years-old.
But what to do about it? Amazingly, once we know what the cause of the problem is, it will often go away. Just. Like. That.
But what if you can’t track down the reason that you are afraid of cats? Most of us can’t remember what happened to us when we were four-years-old. What can we do in these situations?
The solution in these cases is to approach the problem in pretty much the same way. Realize that your fear of cats was born when you were small for some obscure reason that wouldn’t lead you to be afraid today.
With this understanding in mind, slowly being to expose yourself to these lovely creatures. Ask a friend who has a cat to introduce you to Snowball. Watch as the owner encourages the cat to jump into an empty cardboard box or paper bag. Watch the cat chase down a ping pong ball. Be mesmerized as the cat falls asleep in its owner’s arms.
Approach these learning opportunities with an open mind. Realize that you know absolutely nothing about these amazing creatures because you’re been afraid to engage in opportunities to interact with them until now.
It’s okay if you are initially afraid. This is what happens when people learn to stop having panic attacks,too. They have to learn to overcome their fear when they feel their heart rates accelerate and their breathing get tight. Know what causes panic attacks? It’s just adrenaline. People that experience panic attacks are actually having adrenaline rushes that they can interpret as the signs of a heart attacks.
Understanding what’s going on makes all the difference.
Dr. Patricia Turner, PhD, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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