Psychotherapy, which some people may call talk therapy, is a common treatment option for people with phobias. There are different types of psychotherapy, including exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder in which a person has an irrationally strong fear of something specific. The source of this fear may be an object, animal, person, situation, or event.
Phobias are relatively common. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that around
Psychotherapy for phobias typically involves working together with a specialist to alter a person’s attitude toward the object or situation they fear to more positively manage their emotional response.
In this article, we explore some of the specific psychotherapy types that people may consider trying to help treat phobias and how a person can find the right therapist for them.
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This type of therapy may involve gradual exposure to fear-provoking situations, beginning with the least frightening and building up to the most frightening. Alternatively, a person may start therapy with the most frightening exposure; healthcare professionals call this technique “flooding.”
Another technique is systematic desensitization. It involves a therapist combining exposure therapy with relaxation techniques that may help a person feel calmer while being exposed to the source of their fear. In some cases, a person may begin to associate the source of their fear with relaxation.
Exposure therapy also varies in the way a therapist exposes a person to their source of fear. The exposure may start with someone imagining the source of their fear. In some cases, a person may eventually directly face the source of their fear such as handling or petting an animal that causes them to feel fear.
Some therapists may use virtual reality technology to help someone with a phobia. For example, they may simulate high places to help people overcome their phobia of heights.
Alternatively, a therapist may use interoceptive exposure in which they deliberately make a person feel harmless physical sensations that they associate with fear, panic, or distress.
For example, a person with panic disorder may associate an elevated heart rate with a feeling of being in danger. Therefore, a therapist may ask them to run on the spot to raise their heart rate and create a similar physical sensation without any sense of danger.
People living with phobias will often develop thought patterns around their phobia that do not reflect reality and cause anxiety. CBT may help a person identify these thoughts so that they can replace them with different thought patterns that lessen any feelings of anxiety.
For example, when encountering something that triggers fear, a person may tend to catastrophize or focus on the worst possible outcome, which can worsen their anxiety feelings.
If someone finds themselves experiencing the extreme fear that a phobia triggers, CBT may help them to:
- remind themselves that they are experiencing a phobic episode
- remember that the episode will not last for long and will end soon
- recognize the thoughts that are causing their fear to worsen
- replace these inaccurate thought patterns with more reality-based attitudes
This technique may not stop the initial surge of fear that exposure to the source of a person’s phobia can trigger. However, mindfulness training may help lessen the severity of fear that a person feels.
Mindfulness techniques that may be helpful in managing phobic episodes include:
The right therapist for an individual is very much a personal choice. It is important that a person chooses a therapist someone that they have a good rapport with.
It is also important to address practical questions such as:
- Is the therapist in a person’s insurance provider network? How close is the therapist’s office to work or home?
- Do they offer in-person, online, or video consultations?
- Do they align with an individual’s personal preferences about gender, race, age, communication style, or cultural awareness?
- Do they have the necessary training in a given specialist area, such as CBT, or exposure therapy?
- Is the therapist licensed to practice in a person’s home state?
The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) has an online tool to help people find the right therapist for them and their needs.
Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that cause episodes of extreme fear. Different types of psychotherapy may benefit people living with phobias.
Types of therapy that may help treat phobias include exposure therapy, CBT, and mindfulness training.
It’s recommended that a person speak with a doctor if they think they may have a specific phobia. A healthcare professional may be able to recommend a therapist who can help address a person’s phobia. Additionally, a person may use the ABCT online tool to find a therapist.