Two events in the past couple of years--a cluster of terrors in the news and my own motherhood genesis--have had me pulling out the stops when it comes to anxiety management. Stories of domestic terrorism and sex trafficking have horrified me, but the real fear has come from the accidents involving kids: the Cincinnati zoo fall, the Disney World alligator, and similar stories. Parents lose their kids in the store or airport hundreds of times a year, so I just don’t buy the notion that these tragedies would only happen to incompetent parents. Or rather, if the standard is perfection, we’re all incompetent parents.
One of the ways Michael has tried to help me manage anxiety about harm coming to my family is by suggesting bibliotherapy, and specifically, Harry Potter. He knows I love Harry Potter and have used it many times to deal with hard times--in fact, in the our household, the word “Aspirin” actually means the Harry Potter books. But in the case of anxiety, this is especially fitting: years ago, at another time in my life when anxiety was high, I sought counseling and I came across a therapy that Harry Potter is all about.
Exposure Response Prevention
It’s called Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). Basically, ERP boils down to the premise that when we avoid illogical fears, we fear it even more and fear-avoidance behaviors escalate. The Harry Potter series seems to share that premise, especially in its treatment of the boggart and Lord Voldemort’s name.
The Boggart as Anxiety
No one knows (except Mad Eye Moody) what a Boggart looks like while hidden in the closet or cupboard or chest, but in the open it appears as whatever a person most fears. The only way to get rid of it is to open the door, face the shape it takes, and finally dispel it using the incantation “riddikulus!” to force it into a shape inciting laughter.
When I first thought of the boggart as an irrational fear or phobia metaphor, I realized that I must not have been the first person to make that connection. And I wasn’t. Lots of people struggling with anxiety or OCD have thought of this magical “ghost in the closet.”
Like phobias, a boggart is:
- Not real (more mental projection than anything)
- Powerful despite not being real
- Strengthened in power by attempts to fight what it represents (with the exception of Harry’s dementor) instead of fighting it as simply a shapeshifter.
- So, if you try to chop off the snake’s head, that doesn’t make the snake go away and, presumably, your increased belief in the snake only makes the boggart stronger.
- Can’t be beat with avoidance
Facing the Anxiety Boggart
Whether someone has a needle phobia, an OCD ritual (cleaning, confessing, counting), or a crippling social anxiety, the first step in getting rid of the boggart is to face what seems too terrifying to look at.
When the potential intolerable catastrophe has a physical threat, exposure means actually, physically coming into proximity with that threat. For those who fear needles, it might mean going to a blood drive and first looking at
- unused, unopened needles
- then, opened but unused needles
- then, a trash can of used needles
- then, a needle with drawn blood
- then, a needle drawing blood
- and eventually, perhaps, even giving blood.
When the threat is intangible, such as, say, the threat of your favorite store running out of ramen noodles, exposure can be done through imagination.
Imaginitive exposure involves intentional, attentive efforts to be “mentally” in the presence of a threat. Examples could include imagining or writing about impulsively hurting someone (keep in mind that someone is afraid of something because they don’t want it to happen--fear is not the same as ideation), or discussing with a therapist what it really would be like if one got in a car crash or ran out of ramen.
Exposure v. Catastrophizing
Imaginative exposure might sound like catastrophizing--that is, dwelling on the worst case scenarios--but it is ultimately a different process and has the opposite effects. The difference is that, in catastrophizing, we feel as though we are being “drug along” a terrible domino sequence that lead to utter chaos or hurt, and that is unbearable. In catastrophizing, we sense the potential for fear, sadness, or loss and do whatever we can to smother those feelings. Conversely, in imaginative exposure, we imagine the actual chaos and let ourselves feel the fear, loss, hurt and sadness, rather than trying to avoid feeling negative emotions. A person abides discomfort, and eventually that discomfort drops, because a body can only stay in a “fight or flight” mode for a limited period of time. Our values and priorities haven’t changed, but the possibility of ultimate ruin is a thought that we can experience with acceptance.
Dispelling the Boggart with Laughter
Now, the boggart goes a step further than ERP in its requirement of humor. Some therapists have certainly made this connection as well, but it isn’t core to exposure therapy.
I think this is brilliant. In joking about spiders and heights and our own inadequacy, we become less afraid. In fact, I used to be terrified of hurting my husband, because of his cerebral palsy--until I started pretending to accidentally step on his feet (affectionately, of course), and then profusely apologizing. He returned the favor, and it’s a habit we haven’t broken yet.
That said, as awesome as comedy is, it has its limits. Lupin didn’t want Harry to face the Boggart thinking it would form Voldemort, because how does Harry make the murderer of his parents humorous? Likewise, how could Molly have turned the images of her children, husband and Harry dead into a joke? Surely, it is cruel to expect people to respond to true trauma with humor, and cruel to consider them less well-adjusted if they don’t.
Fear of You-Know-Who
Humor may not have been the best way for Harry to deal with seeing Voldemort, the shape Lupin assumed Harry’s boggart would take, but the book doesn’t leave Harry
(or the rest of the wizarding world) without a choice. Most wizards and witches refuse to say the name Voldemort, but as Dumbledore says, “fear of a name only increases fear of a thing itself.” Or rather, avoiding even imaginative exposure increases fear. Some examples in our culture include avoiding saying that someone has died or admitting depression. You know that postpartum depression is truly something to fear when you feel bad calling it what it is.
Taking Fears One at a Time
I don’t think there’s any use creating more boggarts--for instance, at this point in my life I’m not going to go looking for scary stories about babies getting hurt and will instead be doing exposure to fears I already have thought about or been introduced to. I’m not doing exposure by shoring up my heart with the news of every tragedy in my state or nation or beyond. But I can be forthright and front-facing to those fears that are present and that relate to my day to day life. I can resist the impulse to avoid things like going down the stairs while holding my son just because I’m afraid I might fall, or the impulse to refuse driving somewhere for fear of an accidence. I can acknowledge that painful experience is a possibility, one that I can’t control against. In the dark moments of anxiety, I can call my fears for what they are, and call my anxiety what it is. I wouldn’t have anxiety if I didn’t care. And, as Dumbledore says in not so few words, it’s awesome that I care.