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Exposure therapy through art: How art can help you work through fear

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of frogs/toads. Growing up, I lived in Swaziland and then in a small town in South Africa where there are plenty of such creatures. I have theories as to where this phobia came from, but that’s not important. What is important is that for a very long time I have been aware of how irrational this fear is, but no amount telling myself that has changed it.

I don’t think of them as dangerous. They can even be cute from far, but whenever they are close to me I have an uncontrollable reaction: heart pounding, strong urge to flee, a general sense of horror and if they get too close, hyperventilation. I’ll tell you two stories so you get the picture.

The first happened when I was in highschool. My parents had been dealing with the problem of small frogs coming into the house at night. I was up late one night watching TV after my parents had gone to bed. When I was ready to go to bed I was met with a tiny frog (like the size of my thumb) in the doorway to the passage that lead to my room. I could have easily just stepped over it. However, my instinctual reaction was to back away as quickly as I could. I then got a can of insect repellent, sprayed a ring of it around the couch to ‘ward off’ any tiny frogs and slept in the lounge that night.

Story number two: I was at my sister’s place one night when a toad was discovered in the living area. Now, I was near the doorway so I was between the toad and the only way for it to get out so my mind was already racing. My brother-in-law, not aware of the extent of my phobia, thought it would be funny to mess with me by throwing a dish towel at me and shouting “Look out!”. I don’t know if I moved so fast or if my brain just switched off while my body was in full flight mode, but the next second I was outside. As my rational brain went back over what just happened, I realised that I had just run away from a dish towel.

Last year I decided I needed to confront my fears and try to treat my phobia in case I was ever alone with a toad. A common treatment for phobias is exposure therapy. This involves exposing yourself to the thing that you fear in small doses until you no longer experience fear. When I began my treatment even looking at a picture of a frog would make my heart race. So I decided I would paint or draw a picture of frog or toad every now and then as my exposure. (Just a note: I am not a therapist, nor have I studied much psychology. My phobia is not that extreme and I have not actually involved any real frogs or toads until this week, so I feel this is a relatively safe self-treatment, but I don’t know what the effects of doing this kind of thing would be for someone with extreme phobia.)

Now, I haven’t done many of these artworks, but it’s already made such a difference. I am much more comfortable looking at pictures of frogs and toads. There are so many frogs that are actually so beautiful! When I do encounter a toad or frog unexpectedly (which has been often lately), I can maintain composure and make the conscious decision to flee as opposed to the flight instinct taking over! The other day I even voluntarily got close to the toad that lives in my mom’s plant pot and took some photos of it.

The thing about making art is that one art piece is an entire process. I first spend time looking for a reference photo that I like. This involves scrolling through a ton of images! Then, in order to be able to draw or paint the frog, I need to have an understanding of its form and anatomy. This often means that I need to study several reference photos, maybe even a video, to create just one drawing. This means more exposure, and spending longer looking at each frog. I have to identify its eyes, mouth, nose, legs, toes, etc. This process forces me to see the frog as a creature - something with life, vitality, as opposed to a menacing blob. Looking into the eyes of an animal has an almost humanising effect. You can see that it has feelings, that it lives a life outside of my encounter with it. It means that it is not out to get me. It means that just like me, its main concern is survival which probably actually involves avoiding me at all costs.

So I think that art can help you work through things, especially fear, in a safe environment. It helps you to look at parts of a problem that you may not have thought to acknowledge otherwise. It gives you opportunity to expose yourself to that which you fear…

Okay, as I was writing this blog my nieces had to save me from a small toad outside my door... so I have a lot of work to do. I guess I’ll get back to you on this then?

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