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How My Dog Phobia Helped Me Conquer My Social Anxiety

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Thirteen years. That’s how long it took me to realize I needed treatment for my dog phobia. It wasn’t until I mentioned it briefly at a support group for people with anxiety. Everyone was shocked. I gave the same speech I had always given to anyone who had asked: “I’ve always been afraid of dogs, because I lived in my older sister’s shadow growing up and she was afraid of them. I avoided a lot of situations and experiences because of it, but I don’t know how to help it. It ruins a lot and brings my self0esteem down, but I don’t know anything else.” Everyone was always shocked by the speech. Their faces said it all – how could anyone be afraid of a dog? But that day, in that group, it was different. Everyone had that same look on their face, but this time, it said something else too — you need help.

One year later, I sat in a chair opposite a psychologist who specialized in helping people overcome their anxieties and fears. I had been waiting for this day for months. A while back, I put my name on a waiting list for this program. I was doubtful it would work, but I was willing to give it a shot. The psychologist told me how it would work. The first couple days would be focused on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and the next three days would be focused on exposures. We were going to go into the real world and be around dogs. I was terrified. I knew there was no way I could do it.

Three days later, I wished I owned a dog. Yes, you read that right. I overcame my fear. Those three days consisted of many trips to dog parks, a lot of encouragement from the psychologist and eventually walking and playing with all kinds of dogs. I remember feeling like I was on top of the world and could do anything I wanted to do. I had conquered something that had controlled so many aspects of my life. It felt amazing, but I knew I had to acknowledge another big part of my life: my social anxiety.

When I conquered my dog phobia, I was already seeking treatment for my social anxiety. Therapy and medication helped a lot, but I still had work to do. It was difficult, but the cloud-nine feeling I had felt before helped motivate me. I knew I could take control of my social anxiety.

I found this control a few months later. In school, we had class elections. Being a part of class office had always been a dream of mine and I finally had the confidence to pursue it. Boldly, I decided to run for class president. Everyone close to me was shocked. When you have social anxiety, you don’t want to do things like running for class president. I was extremely nervous. I wanted to win so badly and I knew to do so, I would need to have a powerful speech. I wanted to make it personal so my class would feel connected to me.

I realized I had the perfect topic – my dog phobia. I wrote my speech about how I overcame something in my life that had been a burden for so long. I talked about how I found confidence through overcoming my dog phobia. I told my class how I wanted every one of them to have this same confidence and how I would strive to help them achieve it in the role of class president.

I remember giving the speech. It was a Tuesday and my class crowded into the gym. I was a ball of nerves the whole day. I couldn’t help thinking unhelpful thoughts. I’m definitely going to mess up. I’m going to be too quiet. I’m going to do something wrong. And I am definitely not going to win. But when I stood in front of my class and read my speech, all my nerves went away. I felt the confidence I recently discovered pour out of me.

The whole process went by so quickly. We gave our speeches and found out the results the same day. I wish I could tell you this story ends with me winning and crying tears of joy in the arms of my friends. But it doesn’t. I didn’t win.

Many people believe class elections are popularity contests. Maybe they are. Maybe it was silly of me to think I had a chance at all of winning. I don’t know. But I do know I was able to inspire just a couple of people through my speech. At the end of that day as I went around reluctantly taking down my bright pink posters, people I didn’t even know walked up to me and told me they were inspired by my speech. Even one of my opponents told me she was inspired by my speech. This made me realize even though I didn’t win, inspiring people was enough for me. And that is a truly powerful thing.

A few weeks later, I sat in my therapist’s office telling her that story. She was so proud of me and what she told me has always stuck with me. She said, “That feeling you felt when you overcame your dog phobia — that was the same feeling you felt when you gave your speech. You gained confidence and conquered things that have controlled your life for so long. You ran for class president. You gave a speech in front of your whole class. You should feel proud of yourself, even though the outcome was not what you wanted.”

The moment she said this to me, I had no words. She was right. When you fall down and get a cut, eventually it will scar over and fade. You see this happen all the time. But with mental illnesses and disorders, you don’t physically see the same improvement. When your mental health improves, often times you don’t realize it until you take a step back and reflect. I reflected that day with my therapist. I realized how far I’d come. I realized how I had managed to control two things that used to control me. I realized how taking the small step of signing up for the program all those months before had led me to where I was. I realized through all of my struggles, I would not let my mental state define me.

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Originally published: January 10, 2017
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