Ornithophobia is an irrational and dominant fear of birds, even when they don't pose a real danger. This fear generates anxiety and sometimes behaviors that seek to avoid these animals. You may feel threatened and experience physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating, as well as feelings of helplessness. If this prevents you from going to work in the morning or forces you to choose the longest possible route to avoid encountering birds, it means that fear is affecting the functionality of your life and therefore you should seek help (such as exposure to animals or treatment with professionals).
Part 1 of 2: Preparing a Strategy to Overcome Your Fear
Step 1. Find out more about exposure therapy
Exposing yourself to birds is the most effective way to start overcoming your fear of them. The goal of this strategy is to gradually lessen your fear reactions through prolonged contact. Research indicates that this type of therapy - in its various forms - is very helpful in treating phobias. There are several types, which generally start with less "threatening" steps. Here are some interesting examples (which in some cases work together):
- Imaginary exposure, in which you close your eyes and imagine birds or a situation where you are close to birds in vivid detail.
- In vivo exposure, in which you face your fear in real life. In this case, it would have to be close to birds.
Step 2. Think about why you are afraid of birds
Many phobias are "conditioned" reactions; that is: they are learned from external sources. You weren't born afraid of birds. Take time to explore the roots of your ornithophobia.
- It can be interesting to record everything in a journal, as jotting down thoughts allows us to process information more calmly and in more detail.
- Think of your earliest memory that involves this fear. Did any specific experience catalyze this phobia?
- Have you always been afraid of birds? If not, think of positive or neutral animal-related memories before they became a source of anxiety.
Step 3. Describe your catalysts in detail
As uncomfortable as it is, you won't be able to handle stress and get over it until you fully understand the anatomy of your fear. What are the specific characteristics of birds that cause your anxiety? Here are some common catalysts for ornithophobia:
- Which birds attack from above.
- The way they flap their wings.
- The way they behave when they're on the ground.
- Fear of the diseases they can transmit.
- The way they approach humans looking for food scraps.
Step 4. Create a hierarchy of your phobia
This will help you to have specific guidelines on how to overcome the fear you feel. This hierarchy is just a list of bird-related steps; it starts with options that generate less anxiety and ends with items that arouse all your distaste. The list varies from person to person and you should assemble it according to specific birds you fear or their catalysts. Remember that no one understands your experience of fear more than you do, and create something that will help you. This can be a way to monitor your progress as you progress towards the last steps of exposure therapy. Here's an example:
- Draw a bird.
- Examine black and white photos of birds.
- Examine color photos of birds.
- Watch videos of birds without sound.
- Watch videos of birds with sound.
- Examine birds in your backyard using a pair of binoculars.
- Sit in an open place where birds can roam.
- Visit the bird section of a zoo or a pet store.
- Participate in a controlled bird exhibit where you can touch or feed them.
- Take care of a friend's pet bird.
Step 5. Familiarize yourself with a discomfort scale
This is another useful tool for measuring your progress, used to monitor your nuisance level during each exposure to birds. It can give you a standard reading of how your fear hierarchy affects you at each step, as well as showing you when you're ready to move to the next level as you overcome the phobias from the previous steps. Consider a scale where:
- 0-3: at zero, you are completely relaxed; in three, they experience moderate and noticeable anxiety (but that does not affect their normal functioning).
- 4-7: in four, moderate anxiety starts to make you a little uncomfortable; out of seven, you are quite anxious, with the sensation beginning to affect your ability to concentrate and function normally.
- 8-10: out of eight, you are very anxious and cannot concentrate due to exposure to birds; and ten, you are on the verge (or already having) of a panic attack.
Step 6. Decide at what pace you want to advance through the hierarchy
In addition to the varied types of exposure therapy, you can choose the speed at which you work. Here are two common rhythms for managing the process:
- Gradual exposure: This method is quite common and requires you to move slowly up the hierarchy - only when the earlier stages of the "ladder" no longer have the effect of producing fear reactions. Generally speaking, you will advance when the current step produces an discomfort level between zero and three.
- Flood (implosive therapy): when a person starts at the top of the hierarchy, at the item they are most uncomfortable with. If you are interested in this method, do it as directed by a therapist rather than doing it yourself.
Step 7. Familiarize yourself with relaxation techniques
Since moving up the hierarchy will produce some stress reactions, it can be helpful to learn some calming techniques during exposure to birds. Having the ability to calm your mind, focus on your breathing, and relax your muscles can mean the difference between a panic attack and an exposure that lowers your discomfort scale to a level seven.
See this article for more information on methods to stay calm during exposures
Part 2 of 2: Overcoming Your Fear of Birds
Step 1. Expose yourself to the first item at the bottom of your hierarchy
For most people, this basis falls within the realm of imaginary exposure. Start by closing your eyes and imagining a bird.
Remember that your hierarchy is unique and unique to you. Your phobia may be mild to the point where this imaginary exposure produces a zero-level reaction on the discomfort scale; however, other people may have to start by imagining a drawing of a bird because a real animal would produce a level eight reaction
Step 2. Continue advancing through the parts of the imaginary display of the hierarchy
As thinking about various birds begins to elicit reactions from a 0-3 level on your Discomfort Scale, advance to the stages in the hierarchy that qualify as imaginary. Also, try to describe the events that go through your mind aloud in the present tense to help make the experience more real. You can, for example:
- Contextualize the birds by imagining them on the telephone and power cables that are on or near the back wall of your house.
- Imagine yourself in the situation, like in a park, a few meters away from the animals.
- Imagine giving bread crumbs to ducks or geese in a local pond.
- Finally, imagine touching a friend's pet bird.
- Keep going back to the hierarchy's imaginary exposure until it produces a minimal fear reaction.
- If your hierarchy includes watching a video of a bird in a lower position than touching one, you can still act in that order. You don't have to deal with all the imaginary exposures at once if your list isn't organized that way. Ask yourself what makes the most sense in your mind and be honest with yourself.
Step 3. Expose yourself to the virtual items of your phobia hierarchy
For most people, virtual bird exhibits are a higher stage in the hierarchy than imaginary exhibits. Once you can imagine animals and see yourself next to them with simple effects (or no effects at all), start exposing yourself to the next step. Here are some examples of virtual exhibits that produce fear reactions:
- Draw birds (first, simpler doodles and small birds, then more detailed and larger items).
- Examine pictures of birds (first in black and white, then in color).
- Listen to recordings of bird sounds.
- Watch videos of birds (first muted, then muted).
- Remember to create a detailed inventory for each step on each stage of the discomfort scale. Your goal is to reach three (and hopefully zero) for each exposure.
Step 4. Try to do your first exposure in vivo (in real life)
The items at the top of your hierarchy are probably real experiences with real birds. When mastering the imaginary and virtual exhibits, try to approach the animals in a way that produces the least fearful reaction possible. This could include examining a bird with a pair of binoculars or even looking at a bird through a window (as you will be safe and secure).
As you get used to looking at the bird live - and register a 0-3 discomfort reaction - try opening the window you're facing it through
Step 5. Observe a bird from an open door
When the open window no longer generates a strong effect, try moving on to the next step - in this case, a literal step through the door. Get out of the house while watching a nearby bird. Be aware of the distance from the door that generates an discomfort reaction above a level of three and stop there. Watch until you start to feel the fear subside, and then take a few more steps. Get closer and closer to the animal, without forgetting to monitor its comfort level.
Step 6. Master the in vivo exposures at the top of your hierarchy
These items will depend on your specific phobia as well as your dedication to overcoming it. Your goal may be to pass a group of pigeons without panicking, while someone else may just want to touch a friend's pet without getting anxious. Advance through the rest of the points in the hierarchy, exposing yourself to each one progressively until the level of your discomfort scale is no more than three.
If you run into snags, remember that you can edit your hierarchy. For example, you may no longer be bothered by being next to a friend's parrot when it's free, but the idea of touching a large bird still produces level-eight discomfort. Ask this friend to accompany you to a pet store and try to hold a smaller bird in your hand, such as a parakeet
Step 7. Consider therapist-led exposures
If you run into snags among the hierarchy and don't know how to act correctly - or even if you just want to try exposure therapy under professional guidance - see a therapist who specializes in treating phobias. In addition to helping you find the best way to set up and deal with your hierarchy, this person will provide ideas for steps for what is called "systematic desensitization," a process that combines graded exposures with supervised relaxation exercises.
- In addition, a therapist will be able to help you learn techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which you will discover how your mental processes reinforce your fear of birds. By doing this, you will be more aware of (irrational) ideas that trigger this phobia and thus be able to cognitively alter them before you have fear reactions during exposures.
- Research shows that combating ornithophobia has high success rates, but therapist-led processes are even more effective. One study showed that 63% of people who exposed themselves to their fears maintained their progress, while 80% of those who had professional support made progress. So, if you are having difficulty overcoming the phobia yourself, use guided methods.