Here's what happened when we faced our fears head-on

By Madison Roberts and Maggie Malach
February 13, 2019 01:42 PM
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Teresa Giudice and Kalliope Barlis
Kalliope Barlis

What It Is: One-on-one sessions with celebrity phobia relief expert and best-selling author, Kalliope Barlis

Who Tried It: PEOPLE staffers Madison Roberts and Maggie Malach

Level of Difficulty: 8/10

Kalliope Barlis’ phobia relief methods are based around mindfulness. She provides her clients with tools to help them be more conscious of how they think and how they react to the things that frighten them. As the back of her book Phobia Relief: From Fear to Freedom states, she provides “education — not therapy.”

Maggie Malach, Staff Editor, Digital Platforms

I walked into my session with Kalliope prepared to address two of my biggest struggles: claustrophobia and fear of snakes. Living in New York means being triggered daily by the lack of space in the city. My biggest stressor, however, is commuting on the crowded subway. At least once a week I find myself en route to the PEOPLE office downtown on a train car that’s so tightly packed that my face is firmly lodged in a stranger’s armpit. Feeling like I can’t reach the exit terrifies me. Fun fact: This general anxiety carries over to crowded concerts and crowds in general. I also have a fear of snakes that dates exactly back to the moment I was stuck in a crowd in Times Square (do you see the pattern here?) when a vendor whipped a living, breathing, slithering snake at my face. You’d think my ophidiophobia would only rear its ugly head when I’m hiking — and it definitely has — but I’ve encountered a surprising amount of snakes in the city, including on Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace.

Kalliope and I started our 45-minute session by going over my fears and how I react when faced with them. So far, so good. Next, I did a series of visualizations that refocused my fears from larger-than-life technicolor nightmares to black-and-white, minimized images. Lastly, Kalliope had me close my eyes and encouraged me to relax as she talked me through approaching my phobias. I was so relaxed, in fact, that I can’t recall word for word what she said, but the takeaway is this: She helped me change how I think about the things that scare me, which in turn changes how I feel about them, and will (hopefully) change how I react to them.

Jonathan Cheban and Kalliope Barlis
Kalliope Barlis

After I opened my eyes, she had me repeat the mindset she’d just explained. Even vocalizing it, I felt calmer and more prepared to address my phobias. Perhaps most important of all, I felt empowered to alter my perspective — something that I can carry to other areas of my life. At the end of my session, we watched a few videos that contained either snakes or crowded trains, and while I wasn’t completely at ease (which is okay — my mind should still perceive them as possible dangers), I immediately walked myself through how to handle the situations.

Within days of the session, I had the chance to face both of my fears head-on. Riding the subway, I thought about how Kalliope encouraged me to fend off my anxious feelings by remembering a time when I couldn’t stop laughing. I also reminded myself that even if I feel crowded, the doors will open and I will exit the train. I definitely wasn’t breezy about the situation, but I felt more in control. The second occurrence, however, really tested me. A few days after my session, I returned to my desk after lunch to find that some guests were chilling in the PEOPLE office with snakes — right by my desk! (See how often I encounter snakes in the city?) I’ll be honest: I wasn’t relaxed about the situation at all, especially since my chair faced away from the snakes. But I remembered Kalliope’s guidance to take a deep breath and find an exit, and I did just that. I decamped to work in another part of our office until the office returned to a snake-free reality.

Madison Roberts, Home + Travel Assistant

I have a severe fear of horses. Like, I hear the hooves on the pavement, see the mane, and immediately I’m having a panic attack. You’d think that horses wouldn’t be that big of a deal in N.Y.C., but I encounter them more than you think. Central Park is full of horse-drawn carriages which I’m convinced are going to charge right at me as I’m walking. And when I travel, it seems the first thing I notice on the resort amenities list is the “equine experience.” I’ve grown up knowing my equinophobia is a bit irrational — after all, horses are beautiful and majestic creatures — but it all stems back to the first time I rode a horse when I was 12 years old. I visited a horseback riding venue with my Girl Scout Troop and I have a vivid memory of stepping off my horse and getting kicked in the stomach, which sent me flying backward. After that, I’m pretty sure I blacked out — or just totally erased the aftermath from my memory. Since then, I have avoided horses at all costs, until I went to a dude ranch in Colorado for vacation and my family forced me to ride one. They’d been psyching me up all day, telling me everything was going to be fine and that it was time to face my fear. When the time came for me to saddle Tina, the horse I’d been assigned, I hadn’t yet panicked. I was sweating, sure, and my hands were shaking, but I wasn’t about to back out. So I got on Tina’s back and took a deep breath. Then, she took her first step … and I burst into tears. My family put the photo of me crying and hyperventilating on top of the horse in the family calendar.

So, I’ll admit when I was first presented with the idea of a session with a phobia expert, I was a little skeptical that a 45-minute session could cure my lifetime fear of these animals. However, I went in with an open mind.

Dolores Catania, Teresa Giudice and Kalliope Barlis
Kalliope Barlis

I started by voicing my fear to Kalliope, who asked how I reacted to different scenarios, like seeing horses on a screen vs. seeing them in person, or hearing their footsteps vs. seeing them walking. Then, she asked me what I was hoping to gain from the session, which we discovered was to feel safe around a horse — not to be okay riding them.

Next, she asked me repeatedly to visualize a horse in my head, and then blink it down to be a tiny picture in black-and-white. Then I replayed the two instances when I was most afraid of the horses and reverse the motions until they had completely left my brain. At the end of the session, she asked me to watch a video where horses were playing with each other, and then I closed my eyes and she talked me through seeing horses as beautiful creatures. She advised me to take deep breaths when I’m around them, understanding that I am fully in control of my fear. As I watched the video for a last time, my palms weren’t sweating as much and I realized I felt more grounded.

I had to encounter my fear in real life less than a week after my session with Kalliope. I visited Disneyland and felt immediately stressed about the horse-drawn carriages on Main Street. At first, I ran away from the horse and tried to pass it, but then I remembered Kalliope encouraging me to go back to a time where I couldn’t stop giggling. I tried to think of that moment as a funny thing, focusing on my breathing as I stared at the horse. While I wasn’t totally okay, even after the horse galloped away, I definitely felt calmer, and it was the first time in 12 years that my knee-jerk reaction didn’t involve crying when a horse entered my path.

The Verdict:

Maggie: I’m nowhere close to being comfortable around snakes or crowds, and honestly, I don’t see that changing. However, I’m much more empowered to control my reactions in those uneasy situations. I feel confident knowing that if I’m caught off-guard (hello, snakes in our Manhattan office) I can remain calm and not panic. For me, it’s all about the deep breaths and reframing the triggering moments.

Madison: My fear of horses is definitely not gone, and I don’t really see myself ever being able to be around them without tensing up, but I do feel more in control of my emotions when I encounter them. Being able to reframe my reactions to my fear and feel like I’m in control of my emotions is definitely a skill I’m focusing on now thanks to Kalliope.