Understanding Phobias

Phobias are often thought of as ‘irrational’ fears. In fact, phobias can be better characterised as an anxiety disorder. When a person has a phobia, exposure to that phobia – or even the anticipation of exposure – creates an overwhelming sense of danger. For example a photograph of the object the person is phobic of or being in an environment where they’re likely to come across the object.

A person can have a phobia for an object, such as an animal for instance. Arachnophobia (fear of spiders) is a common phobia, as is ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). There are also situational phobias such as aviophobia (fear of flying) as well as environmental, like acrophobia (fear of heights).

Many people with ‘simple’ phobias often don’t find it to be a hindrance to their day-to-day lives. However, there are also more complex phobias that may necessitate psychological treatment. For some, the anxiety can be so severe that they may find it debilitating.

A common example of this is agoraphobia, the fear of open and crowded spaces. People who experience agoraphobia may find themselves having panic attacks in such spaces. It’s our psychological instinct to avoid the subjects of our phobias. As a result, people with agoraphobia may be unable to leave their home.

A person can develop a phobia for a variety of reasons. However, the general consensus is that a phobia often stems from a particular traumatic incident.

How to treat phobias

People with simple phobias often learn how to handle them on a day-to-day basis. However, when a phobia severely impedes a person’s life, they may need to seek treatment.

The two main treatments for phobias are:

Psychoanalytic therapy to treat phobias

Psychoanalytic therapy is an effective means of phobia treatment because it aims to examine the root cause of a phobia. Psychoanalysis theorises that phobias are a result of fear that’s displaced onto a certain object or situation. The fear will often stem from a particular event. The specific event may be forgotten, but the fear itself remains. Alternatively, the object or situation may be representative of a much more deep-seated fear.

The role of the psychotherapist is to help the person locate the source of this fear. This fear can be thought of as an internal conflict, which manifests itself in the form of a phobia. Solving this conflict should, therefore, cure the phobia. Unlike cognitive behavioural therapy, psychoanalytic therapy does not culminate in exposure to the object of a person’s phobia.

Find out more about psychoanalysis for treating phobias on our psychoanalytic therapy page.

Cognitive behavioural therapy for phobias

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aims to treat a phobia’s symptoms rather than the root cause. Cognitive behavioural therapy first teaches people to consciously identify negative thoughts associated with their phobia. These are then replaced with more ‘realistic’ or rational thoughts. This helps the person to disassociate the feelings of anxiety with the object of their phobia. This is a process known as ‘cognitive restructuring’

Cognitive restructuring prepares people for exposure to the object of their phobia. Exposure is the ‘end goal’ and should be handled via a graded approach. If someone has agoraphobia, a graded approach would be taking a few steps outside. The level of exposure would then gradually increase until the person is able to go outside.

Until an individual with a phobia has experienced contact with the object of their phobia, it’s unlikely that cognitive behavioural therapy can make the person believe that no harm will come to them in such instances. Exposure will become possible once someone has been taught new strategies that will help them consciously deal with their fears and anxieties.

The original source of a person’s fear may never go away entirely. But, if someone feels capable of handling their fear, the therapy has successfully altered their thinking.

If you think CBT could be an effective means of treating phobias, visit our cognitive behavioural therapy page.