by Stephanie Grossman, M.A.
I remember learning my first year in graduate school that you can’t be diagnosed with a phobia unless you actually encounter the feared stimulus. For example, I can’t have a snake phobia because I don’t encounter snakes living in New York City. However, if I move down to Florida, where snakes are abundant, I could suddenly “develop” this diagnosis. Along similar lines, I have never had a mouse phobia… until last week. To be honest, the feelings of fear still linger as I write this post and try to begin to describe a terror-filled four days which began at the literal peak eclipse moment on Monday. Instead of catching a glimpse of the eclipse with the rest of the country, I was huddled inside my apartment, diligently avoiding any inadvertent glance at the sun (so apparently mice aren’t the only thing I’m afraid of…). At 2:44pm I saw the mouse, scurrying from underneath the radiator in my living room along the wall to my refrigerator. I felt immediate fear. My heart was pounding, I felt helpless, I texted multiple friends for advice, and called my super in a panic. Very unfortunately, my super recently had knee surgery, and due to a multiple month-long construction project on my elevator, he couldn’t make it to my 6th floor apartment to help (I would later learn that it was likely this construction that incited the mouse infestation). Over the next few days, I was honestly so scared. I was near tears approaching my apartment door coming back home for the night, and would not go near my kitchen. I couldn’t sleep at all that first night, convinced I would awaken with a mouse on my shoulder.
Luckily for me, a friend of mine had planned to stay at my apartment for three nights that week, and she was instrumental. She cooked me food, disposed of the mouse traps we set, comforted me, and spoke to the exterminators while I hid in my bedroom. She expressed concern about how anxious I had become, but she didn’t judge me for it. She was right, though. I had a real mouse phobia, and my thoughts causing my anxiety were both incapacitating and irrational. I began taking both a cognitive and behavioral approach to deal with this issue, but it wasn’t easy. Cognitively, I could identify that I was afraid of feeling afraid, and believed I could not tolerate the emotional and physiological reaction I experienced when a mouse ran across the room. I tried to remind myself that I could in fact tolerate this emotion (it didn’t work). Behaviorally, I decided to stare at a picture of a mouse on my computer until my anxiety went down (it barely did). Over the past few days, though I haven’t seen a mouse, my heart still accelerates when I open my living room door and examine the traps, or when I hear a bit of rustling, or see a shadow. I am slowly forcing myself to cook, to walk around barefoot, to face my phobia. It’s eye opening, though, to have these types of experiences. It’s easy as a therapist to see so clearly how clients’ beliefs are absolutely, certainly, irrational. But when I’m the one with the irrational beliefs, they suddenly become legitimate and debilitating. I’m also reminded that the cognitive and behavioral strategies I know to work, really do take time. I have not gotten over my mouse phobia yet, nor should I expect to. I will continue to work on this fear, but in the meantime, thank goodness for steel wool and good friends.