Phobias refer to ongoing, excessive fears about a specific object or situation. Common phobias include fear of heights, confined spaces, spiders, driving a car, and flying on airplanes.1 While phobias create immense distress and anxiety, they are treatable. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and medication can help reduce or eliminate symptoms of phobias.
5 Types of Therapy for Phobia Treatment
People with specific phobias (a type of anxiety disorder) are aware of their condition. Most recognize their fears as being irrational or disproportionate; however, that recognition doesn’t necessarily translate to less fear or anxiety. Therapy provides action-based solutions for change. Depending on your condition, your health insurance may cover some or all of your treatment.
Here are five effective therapy treatments for phobias:
1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is an evidence-based psychotherapy used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including specific phobias.2
This treatment is short-term, structured, and collaborative. You will work with your therapist to identify the negative thoughts surrounding your specific phobia triggers. You’ll also learn how to challenge and restructure these thoughts into more realistic ones.
2. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that helps clients confront their feared situations. Your therapist will consistently “expose” you to your phobia via in-vivo or real-life experiences. They may create a fear hierarchy with you, slowly leading you to facing the most significant fear. Over time, this repeated exposure often creates a desensitization effect.3
3. Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)
Although it is generally used for treating trauma, some research highlights the benefits of EMDR for phobia treatment.4 The onset of phobias can correspond with traumatic experiences, and EMDR can resolve both the trauma and the associated phobic reactions that may have emerged as a result.
4. Narrative Therapy
Narrative therapy focuses on helping people feel empowered and in charge of their unique stories. For example, when treating anxiety, narrative work supports clients in using storytelling to rewrite how they perceive their experiences. Over time, this therapy can help clients see themselves separately from their phobias.
5. Group Therapy
Although it does not appear to be as widely studied as individual treatments, group therapy with a CBT focus can help people with phobias.5
Group therapy offers peer support and a sense of community and validation. Clients recognize they are not alone in their struggles and can review progress and setbacks in their recovery together.
3 Medication-Based Phobia Treatments
Some health professionals prescribe psychiatric medication for treating phobias. Medication is often used in conjunction with therapy, as it helps reduce anxiety symptoms. You must have a prescription to take these medications, so discuss your options with your primary care physician or a psychiatrist. Your health insurance may subsidize some or all of the associated costs.
Here are three forms of medication for specific phobia treatment:
1. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs (e.g., Paxil, Lexapro, Zoloft, and Prozac) are a type of antidepressant often prescribed for both depression and anxiety symptoms. In addition, they are commonly recommended for treating phobias. These medications work by increasing serotonin levels. Side effects tend to be mild and rare, but you may experience fatigue, nausea, and headaches, as well as weight gain for some.6 These symptoms tend to disappear after a few weeks. It is important to note that it is possible to have severe side effects to these medications and you should talk with your doctor about the risks before starting medication.
2. Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs)
MAOIs are less frequently prescribed, but physicians may recommend them if someone doesn’t benefit from SSRIs. MAOIs include Parnate, Nardine, and Manerix. These medications act on parts of the brain associated with dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
MAOIs can have serious side effects, including muscle cramps, low blood pressure, and involuntary muscle jerks. They also interact with numerous food and beverages, including certain cheeses, meats, and soy products.7 You should talk with your doctor about the risks before starting medication.
Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and Ativan) are tranquilizers that slow down the central nervous system. These medications can provide sedative effects and provide fast-acting relief for anxiety or panic attack symptoms. A physician may prescribe a benzodiazepine for managing a high-stress phobia situation (like being on an airplane). However, because benzodiazepines can be addictive, this medication is only advised for short-term, monitored use. You should talk with your doctor about the risks before starting medication, and continually check in with them regarding the impacts of the medication once you begin taking them.
9 Ways to Cope With Phobias
It’s possible to cope and live a meaningful life despite your phobia. The first step is to recognize the problem. Ultimately, you may benefit from a combination of professional therapy, medication, and individual lifestyle changes. Keep in mind that being proactive in your treatment can make a significant difference in your recovery.
Nine ways to cope with phobias are:
- Label your feelings: Labeling your feelings allows you to be more objective about your experience. Get in the habit of identifying how you feel in given situations. For example, “I feel worried and insecure right now.” Over time, you’ll start recognizing patterns and triggers, allowing you to make necessary changes in your routine.
- Practice deep breathing: Breathing helps promote a state of calmness, and it can also help quiet the cluttered thoughts in your mind. When you start to feel anxious, pause for a moment. Inhale for five counts, hold for a second, and then exhale for five counts. Repeat several times.
- Examine the evidence: Identify the worst-case scenario (which is the root of the anxiety). Now, identify other possible scenarios, including the best-case scenario and the most likely scenario. Examining the evidence removes some of the emotional intensity from the situation and focuses more on objective data.
- Imagine yourself facing fear: Positive visualization can be a powerful tool in your recovery. Spend some time imagining yourself successfully conquering your phobia. Note how empowered you feel and what positive changes this success brings.
- Challenge your thoughts: Phobias often coincide with all-or-nothing negative thoughts like, “I’m going to die” or, “Something horrible will happen.”The next time you encounter one of these thoughts, take a moment to challenge it. How likely is it to come true? Is there another realistic, helpful thought you can use in its place?
- Affirm small successes: It’s unrealistic to conquer a fear overnight. Instead, it’s important to recognize and celebrate all victories as they happen. Validating yourself is an important part of self-empowerment and maintaining strong momentum.
- Talk with peers and loved ones: Phobias can trigger shame, which can deeply affect your confidence and self-esteem. However, phobias are common, so you might find that talking to others about your fears invites them to share their own experiences. Moreover, your loved ones can provide support and reassurance for your well-being.
- Be mindful of avoidance tendencies: Phobias become so intense because you spend a great deal of time avoiding (or attempting to avoid) the feared situation. Try to be mindful of this tendency. While you may not feel comfortable conquering the feared situation right away, start reflecting on the mental energy you devote to this avoidance. You may soon realize how much it affects your life.
- Reach out for support: You don’t have to conquer your phobia on your own. Working with a therapist can help you understand your fear and develop a realistic plan for managing your symptoms.
Final Thoughts on Specific Phobia Treatment
Phobias may feel like they’re life-threatening, but you can learn how to cope with this anxiety. If you are struggling, consider reaching out for support from a therapist and/or loved one. Phobias are treatable, but you must commit to taking positive action towards change.