What street dogs taught me about fear

I’ve always been afraid of dogs. When I was younger, when I saw a dog walking down the street, I’d run inside the house. If I spotted a dog on a leash, I’d cross the street so I could keep my distance. Each time I visited someone’s house for the first time, there was only one thing I wanted to know up front: do they maybe, have a dog?  Walking around with a dog phobia is pretty terrible, because I mean, what are the chances you enter a house and a spider or snake is waiting behind the door? In my experience, domestic dogs always come running to the front door, acting like my presence is the biggest event of the day! Whether the dog looks like a big monster (to me) or a doormat, they all seem to be thinking: wow, someone’s ringing the doorbell, let’s start a party now!

Not that I don’t like parties.

After they hear me screaming and running away, the dog owner usually runs behind the dog and me (because he’s never as fast as we are) and shouts: “Don’t worry! This dog is sweet, he just wants to play!”

And then I would scream: “I know, but my amygdala doesn’t care! I have a dog phobia!”

Fear is hiding in the oldest part of your brain

People with a specific phobia typically know that their fear, in this particular situation, is exaggerated. But the part of the brain that handles quick fight, flight or freeze responses to fear, is called the amygdala. And the amygdala is the oldest part of the brain. It doesn’t learn by conscious thought. That’s why you can’t simply talk yourself out of a phobia or anxiety attack.

The fear memory is stored as a conditioned fear and can only be relieved by more conditioning, not discussion, reason or logic. The amygdala works quickly and without your conscious awareness, because speed is vital in protecting against threats. You only find out your amydgala is working when you feel its effects in your body (like panic sensations). If you want to overcome a specific phobia or anxiety attack, you will need to retrain your amygdala.

The amygdala only learns when it’s fully activated, when it spots something it considers dangerous. It only forms new memories and associations when you’re afraid! The rest of the time it’s on autopilot, passively watching and not learning anything. That means that if you hide away every time you have an anxiety attack, your amygdala learns that you should run or hide away to be safe, and you will keep on repeating the same old mistakes without any chance to learn something new.

How to retrain your amygdala

Because the amygdala only learns when it’s afraid, the most direct and systematic way to retrain it is exposure therapy. That means, if you want to get rid of a specific fear, you have to expose yourself to it. If you want to get rid of your fear of heights, you have to put yourself out there. And you need to stay there with that fear until the fear gets lower. That gives your amygdala the chance to learn that it got all worked up about nothing. That the situation isn’t a threat like you were conditioned to believe. And with repetition, it will develop a new memory, one that lets you get on with your life without being disrupted by phobias and anxiety attacks.

There are many benefits to exposing yourself to street dogs. In many countries in South-East Asia and Latin America, street dogs are everywhere, so you can’t really escape being exposed to them. But at the same time, they’re usually not at all interested in you! They’re like most animals just doing their thing, minding their own business and trying to survive. These dogs taught me to be less fearful and I eventually even managed to feed one. I’ve also already played with a few domestic dogs, which for most people, is easy. For me, it’s a big life changer! That doesn’t mean I already completely lost my fear of dogs. I still wouldn’t want to be left alone with a dog. Retraining your amygdala can only happen gradually and after repeated exposure. Writing a plan that gradually exposes you more to the treath, can be helpful. If you have a fear of dogs, the steps could look like this:

  • Step 1: Look at pictures of dogs.
  • Step 2: Watch a video with dogs in it.
  • Step 3: Look at a dog from a distance.
  • Step 4: Stand across the street from a dog on a leash.
  • Step 5: Stand 10 feet away from a dog on a leash.
  • Step 6: Stand 5 feet away from a dog on a leash.
  • Step 7: Stand beside a dog on a leash.
  • Step 8: Pet a small dog that someone is holding.
  • Step 9: Pet a larger dog on a leash.
  • Step 10: Pet a larger dog off leash.

Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain. – Mark Twain