They’re often overlooked as a serious mental health issue, but phobias for some people (indeed, millions) can have a drastically negative impact on daily functioning. In fact, the very definition of a phobia is an uncontrolled fear of something, to the point where the fear causes significant impairment of daily life. The worst misconception about phobias, however, is the idea that they are permanent, and that we are powerless to act against them. In fact, phobias can be treated very readily, as long as we are willing to make the effort to fight them.
A key aspect of a specific phobia is that it is generalized, to the point of irrationality. Often (but not always), phobias are caused by a traumatic event early in life, especially one that triggers fear or is labeled as dangerous by the developing mind. The traumatic event might not even have happened to us; observing a strong reaction on the part of another person can trigger a specific phobia, as well. My phobia was triggered by a personal experience: an unfortunate incident involving a very large boxer and my small, three-year-old self resulted in a persistent fear of dogs throughout my entire childhood. At the time, the fear seemed natural enough, and not all that damaging to my daily life. Looking back, though, I can see that it caused some pretty unnecessary reactions on my part; at my worst, I would cross the street to avoid walking past a dog on a leash that was about one-fifth my size!
I don’t really bat an eye when I cross a dog these days, and though I never received formal treatment, the way I got rid of the phobia is not much different from what we would experience in a treatment setting. Over time, I was exposed to more and more dogs; my neighbors had them, my relatives had them, my friends had them. I couldn’t avoid them unless I never went to see any of those people, and that option didn’t sound like it would make me very happy. As I started to see more and more dogs, I started to notice a curious thing. Contrary to what I had always thought, every dog in the world wasn’t rigidly determined to tear me apart at a moment’s notice. In fact, some were quite nice to me. Of course, even in those days, if you had asked me in the comfort of my own home whether or not I thought every dog in the world would jump at me if given the opportunity, I would probably respond sensibly. I knew that all dogs weren’t as violent as the one that attacked me all those years ago, but when we are in the moment, the parts of our brain (especially the amygdala) that regulate and control emotion and fear automatically activate a fear response. Over time, when we are exposed to stimuli around which our phobias are based, and that fear is not actualized, the fear response starts to weaken. Hence, treatment for phobias typically comes in the form of exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is, at the risk of oversimplification, roughly what I went through with dogs, but in a controlled setting with a therapist. There are quite a few advantages to formal exposure therapy. In a controlled setting, the actual danger of anything threatening happening is essentially zero, and you’ve got a licensed therapist with you to act as your support and lifeline. Exposure therapy is a gradual process. If you’re battling a persistent fear of spiders, to the point where yard work is rendered impossible, therapy might start with being in the room for a few seconds with a spider at the opposite end, and, over the course of weeks or months, work toward actually approaching and, ultimately, touching that spider. The key to exposure therapy is the dawning realization that phobia-based fears are irrational, and that the danger we automatically perceive isn’t real. Once you reach that point, you can work on mastering your fear, so (unlike young me) you won’t find yourself avoiding the stimuli in your everyday life, no matter the cost. It can be a difficult process, but with exposure therapy, you won’t need to go through it alone, and, with a little determination, you’ll be laughing in the face of your fears once you get to the other side.