Mushrooms part 3: Exposure treatment

To try to make progress on overcoming my mushroom phobia, I’ve been working on exposure goals this summer. The most common and effective treatment for phobias, exposure involves doing the things that you’ve been avoiding out of fear, so that you learn that you can in fact handle them. Exposure is usually done gradually so you can feel a sense of mastery over each aspect of it and feel that the whole process is under your control. Before starting the exposures, I worked with my therapist to create a list of the types of things I was afraid to do (involving mushrooms) and we ranked them in order of difficulty.

Starting with the low-difficulty exercises, I first looked at pictures of mushrooms. I also practiced saying and writing the word mushroom (for a few decades I had avoided doing even this).

Then it was time to start dealing with some actual mushrooms, but easy ones (not the living, growing ones that I’m most afraid of). To be honest, I found these exercises a little more strange than scary. I bought a jar of (small) whole mushrooms, took some out, and poked at them with a stick. I was even able to touch one, but I think this was because rubbery, slimy, and soaking in a jar, it didn’t have the frightening properties I associate with mushrooms that suddenly appear in the wild. My therapist made some mushroom spore prints and brought them to one of our sessions. Assuming that you don’t have a mushroom phobia, these are actually kind of cool (see link to instructions below). The print is made of mushroom spores but it looks like an incredibly detailed charcoal drawing of the underside of a mushroom. You can preserve these images with fixative, but my therapist left them natural so I could touch the spores. I smeared the spores all over my fingertips, but it felt just like smearing charcoal. Again this was not really frightening as much as it was surreal.

Wild, growing mushrooms are what really frighten me, so I’ve started trying some exposure exercises with those too. I transplanted some tomato plants that had very small mushrooms growing around them. Though I didn’t touch any of those mushrooms, I did have to dig (with a spade and gloves) in soil where I knew mushrooms would be, and pull the plant out with many little mushrooms dangling from the root ball. That did make me quite anxious, but it was manageable. The other thing I did was visit my friend the mycologist for a guided tour of the mushrooms in the woods surrounding his house. We saw a wide variety of mushrooms and he would pick them up and show me their special features. His enthusiasm for the mushrooms was very amusing (he kept referring to them as “cute,” “perfect,” and occasionally “delicious”). He also said I would make a good mycologist because having a phobia for mushrooms makes me extraordinarily good at spotting them. The visit was informative and only a bit frightening, since I was just watching and not touching anything. (I also asked my husband not to touch anything because I didn’t want come away from this visit with an image in my mind of him holding a mushroom.) The hardest part was being careful about where I was stepping, since I’m very nervous about brushing up against a mushroom with my foot, even while wearing boots.

Clearly, trying to walk where mushrooms are growing has to be my next goal. And maybe eventually touching a mushroom with my shoe, or walking in grass without being completely focused on looking for mushrooms to avoid. I truly don’t know if I’m ready to do this now — with classes starting in just a few weeks I am reluctant to take on challenges that could potentially compromise my emotional stability. But we’ll see. Maybe.


Here is how to make a mushroom spore print:

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