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Overcoming Phobias

By Elaine Pomfrey

Have you ever heard of arachibutyrophobia, lachanophobia or xanthophobia? These terms describe unusual phobias: fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth, fear of vegetables and fear of the color yellow. Granted, these fears are not widespread, but phobias are. According to R. Reid Wilson, PhD, of the American Psychological Association, “Phobias are the most common mental disorder. Over their lifetimes, 11% of people will have a phobia.” Most people deal with their phobias by avoiding the dreaded object. Physicians may recommend medication to reduce anxiety and/or relaxation techniques to reduce overall stress. If psychological treatment is sought, it is likely that cognitive-behavioral* therapy will be the treatment of choice.

What is a Phobia?

Fear of Northern Lights19.2 million Americans a year, or 8.7% of the population, experience a specific phobia, e.g., fear of blood, dogs or enclosed places. “Phobia” is derived from the Greek word, “phobos,” meaning fear. A phobia is an excessive and often unreasonable fear of an object or situation. Exposure to the feared object or situation creates intense anxiety and may be accompanied by shaking, shortness of breath and a quickened heartbeat. Most phobic people recognize that their fear is irrational, however, it does not reduce the terror they experience.  

Fear of dangerous objects, like snakes or spiders, is natural. This fear is likely a genetic self-defense mechanism that protects people from potentially life-threatening situations. Rational fear becomes a phobia when it significantly interferes with daily life or causes distress. For example, a woman with arachnophobia who does not venture out at night because she cannot see if there are any spiders around her. A man who will not cross the bridge between his home and office due to his fear of heights or acrophobia. The Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health in 1999 stated that the most common phobias are to animals, bugs, heights, elevators, flying, driving, water, storms and blood or injections.

Treatment of Phobias

Most people with a specific phobia do not seek professional help unless their lives are disrupted by it. If they consult a physician, they will most likely be treated with medication to decrease anxiety. Frequently, used medications are antidepressants in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) class, such as Prozac or Zoloft.  Also benzodiazepines such as Valium or Xanax are commonly prescribed.

Physicians also recognize that stress management techniques, like the Transcendental Meditation or TM technique, are effective in reducing the anxiety caused by phobias. The TM technique provides deep rest which dissolves stress from the physiology. Research indicates that the result of regular meditation is less anxiety and greater stability in response to stress.

A psychologist would recommend systematic desensitization, a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy, to eliminate the phobia. The patient first learns a relaxation method. Then in a relaxed state, he will be exposed to something about the phobic stimuli that creates only a low level of anxiety. For example, if the patient, like 25% of Americans, has ophidiophobia (snake phobia), he will be shown a picture of a snake. When his anxiety starts to increase, he returns to the relaxation method. He systematically moves through increasingly anxiety-producing scenarios, e.g., seeing a snake at a distance, viewing a snake close-up, touching a snake, until he becomes desensitized to snakes, etc. He learns to substitute a new response – relaxation – for the old response – anxiety.

An alternative therapy, exposure-based therapy is similar to systematic desensitization, but without the relaxation. Methods of exposure to the phobic stimulus can be imaginal exposure (patient imagines the object), in vivo (patient confronts the actual object) or via virtual reality.

Virtual Reality Helps Cure Phobias

One of the first studies on virtual reality and phobia involved a woman with severe arachnophobia. For example, she would seal her clean clothes in plastic bags so that spiders could not climb on them. After just two virtual reality sessions in SpiderWorld, her nightmares about spiders stopped. After nine sessions, she was able to touch the virtual spider with her virtual hand without fear. To help her make more progress, the researchers set up the experiment so that when her virtual hand reached for the virtual spider, her real hand touched a fluffy toy spider. Her anxiety increased, but she gradually habituated and lost her fear of spiders. A meta-analysis of 33 studies suggests that exposure-based therapy is more effective in treating specific phobias than other active psychotherapeutic approaches.

Although many people accept phobias as a part of life, many useful methods are available to help eliminate them. Researchers continue to explore avenues to reduce anxiety and eradicate phobias.

Additional Information

The Transcendental Meditation technique is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider regarding any medical condition. Individual results may vary.

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