written by: hchristina11
• edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick
• updated: 3/10/2011
Learning how to overcome phobias will enable the phobic person to make great strides toward a more fulfilling and less fearful life. The following tips and advice, regarding exposure therapy and other invaluable coping techniques, will help you do just that.
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Treatment is Effective
Having a phobia can be disruptive and sometimes embarrassing. When trying to overcome phobias, it is important to remember that the condition is relatively common, and treating it, while sometimes unpleasant, is relatively easy and straightforward. The body is physiologically wired to exhibit a stress response in situations that it deems dangerous. Most experts recommend exposure therapy as a first line treatment to overcome phobias. Exposure therapy can reduce the body’s stress response, and a few focused sessions will often times bring significant relief to those who suffer.
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Exposure therapy is literally retraining your brain to react to a fearful situation or object in a different way. It is many times impossible for a person suffering from a phobia to “think" themselves out of an anxiety producing situation. This is due, in part, to the stress response being caused by the body’s “fight or flight" mechanism. Before the brain can rationally and carefully assess a situation for real danger in the cerebral cortex, it is triggered almost instantly by the amygdala to produce noradrenaline and other chemicals that will prepare the body for a hasty exit or brutal battle. These are the neurotransmitters that cause the familiar sensations of panic and anxiety.
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To formulate an exposure therapy plan, determine the original stimulus that causes the anxiety, and then plan for an intended encounter with the object or situation. In order for the amygdala to learn that a situation is not dangerous, it needs to learn that it is not necessary to flee or to fight. After the initial confrontation with the stimulus, like being in the room with a python for a snake phobia, it is important that the person trying to overcome the phobia stay in the situation until the amygdala learns that it does not need to prepare to fight or run.
It is often times recommended that the patient do the exposure therapy sessions, which are the most effective therapies for phobias, with a trusted friend or therapist, so that he or she is able to vocalize what they are feeling. This person can also record the time and emotions that are present at the session, and help the patient to plan longer exposure sessions as the brain becomes desensitized to the perceived danger. The first session can be as short as a couple of minutes and subsequent sessions can be as long as a few hours. After the primitive amygdala learns from the experience, the anxiety experienced will lessen exponentially.
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While in the presence of the stimulus, many relaxation techniques can be used to help the person to cope with the anxiety as he or she waits for it to subside. Simple deep breathing has been shown to be very effective, especially for social and performance phobias. For more object-orientated phobias, like the snake example, it can be effective for the person to focus mentally on another object or sequence. He or she could focus on preparing their favorite recipe, playing a musical instrument, or studying the intricacies of a loved one’s face. This approach will engage the rational mind, while the more primitive part will almost unconsciously learn that an extreme stress reaction is unwarranted.
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Sometimes a phobia may be too ingrained for a person to approach its treatment without help. If this is the case, many therapists are trained on how to overcome phobias, and unlike some mental health treatments which may take years and cost exorbitant amounts of money, professional exposure or desensitization therapy is relatively short and inexpensive.