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Fear factor: Learn to face your phobia

When is a phobia a disorder in need of treatment and not just a “quirk”—or, for that matter, a reasonable response? A cocker spaniel, for example, bit Janice when she was a child. Today, Janice will walk across the street to avoid a dog—even one on a leash. Phobia? Or justifiable fear?

What sets phobias apart from run-of-the-mill fears is the degree to which the fear disrupts your life. You may have a phobia if you answer yes to any of these questions:

  • Do you have a persistent, irrational fear of a situation or an object?
  • Do you go to extreme lengths to avoid this situation or object?
  • Do you react with anxiety or panic to this situation or object?
  • Have your abilities to function or to enjoy life suffered because of this fear?

Kinds of phobias

Phobias are divided into three main categories:

  • Specific phobia is an irrational fear of certain objects or situations, such as snakes, dentists, heights, storms or closed spaces.
  • Social phobia occurs if you are overly self-conscious in the presence of others and fear being scrutinized or humiliated.
  • Agoraphobia is the fear of being alone in a public place where it may be difficult to escape. Those who suffer from agoraphobia are often afraid of having a panic attack when they leave their home.

Treating your phobias

Phobias are treatable. A mental health professional can diagnose your phobia and decide the best treatment course. Doctors commonly use two forms of treatment, either separately or together:

  • Medication helps minimize the anxiety your phobia provokes and the panic you experience when you confront your phobia.
  • Talk therapy helps you change the way you think about and react to your phobia. Your therapist can also teach you meditation, visualization techniques or progressive muscle relaxation to help calm you.

During talk therapy, your therapist may use a process of desensitization to help you conquer your phobia. For instance, if you’re afraid of driving over bridges, you may begin by looking at photos of bridges. You may then drive to a bridge just to look at it. Next, you may drive over a very short bridge. In time, you may choose increasingly longer bridges over which to drive until you can do it without panicking.

Janice’s specific phobia forced her to turn down invitations to social events at the homes of friends who owned dogs. She finally sought professional help and overcame her phobia—realizing that most dogs did not want to bite her.

Millions of people suffer from phobias. Many of them already know their fears don’t make sense. In fact, doctors don’t know exactly what causes a phobia—but they do know it’s a treatable illness that shouldn’t be ignored. If you find a phobia is affecting your personal life, relationships or career, don’t be embarrassed to talk to your healthcare provider about your fears. After ruling out any physical causes, he or she can help you learn how to control or overcome your phobia.