Overcoming Phobias – Does Exposure Therapy Work?

Words: Crush

Fear is a natural response, hardwired into our brains, designed to protect us from danger. But, what happens when fear morphs into something irrational? The world is full of things that scare us – from terrifying creatures to things that go bump in the night. However, when fear becomes irrational, it transforms into a phobia, and the line between reality and imagination blurs. If you wrestle with phobias, you’ve come to the right place.

The amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, plays a pivotal role in phobias.

What Is an Irrational Fear?

An irrational fear, often referred to as a ‘phobia’, is an intense and fabricated fear of a specific object, situation, or activity. The fear is often disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the object or situation. Phobias can be triggered by a wide range of things, from animals, heights, and flying to social situations, public speaking, and even clowns.

Some common phobias include arachnophobia (fear of spiders), acrophobia (fear of heights), and claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces). Though phobias are imagined worst-case scenarios, they sometimes stem from real life events.


Coping Mechanisms & Treatment

Irrational phobias can be complex and deeply ingrained, often originating from a traumatic experience or learned behaviour. It’s essential to recognise that these fears are not a sign of weakness, but are instead a reflection of how our minds work. The complexities of phobias are rooted in the intricate interplay of genetics, brain chemistry, and past experiences.

The amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, plays a pivotal role in phobias. When exposed to the phobia-triggering object or situation, the amygdala goes into overdrive, releasing a cascade of stress hormones and triggering the fight-or-flight response. This intense reaction can make it challenging to confront and overcome irrational fears.


Does Exposure Therapy Work?

Fortunately, there are effective ways to address irrational phobias, offering a path from fear to freedom. One such method is exposure therapy, which is based on the idea that facing your fear in a controlled, safe environment can help desensitise your brain’s fear response.

During exposure therapy, individuals are gradually exposed to the phobia-triggering object or situation, allowing them to learn that the fear is unwarranted.

One study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry in 2008, found that exposure therapy was not only beneficial but also helped people manage snake phobias. Participants were exposed to imagery of snakes. The study determined that they showed significantly less subjective expectancy for a snake to bite. Furthermore, they displayed an increased behavioural approach to snake images after one week.

Another study, published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy in 2012, delved into the neurological changes that occur during exposure therapy. The researchers found that the brain’s fear centres became less active as individuals faced their fears, suggesting that exposure therapy can rewire the brain’s response to phobia triggers.


Tips for Dealing with Phobias

Understanding that these fears are not a sign of weakness, but an interplay of psychological factors and past experiences is the first step towards conquering them.

  • Build a Support System: Don’t face your phobias alone. Share your fears with trusted friends and family who can provide emotional support and encouragement throughout your journey to conquering your phobias.
  • Education: Learn about your phobia, its triggers, and how it affects you. Knowledge is a powerful tool in demystifying and overcoming irrational fears.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practice mindfulness meditation and relaxation exercises to manage anxiety and stress associated with your phobia.
  • Gradual Exposure: Consider systematic desensitisation, a method where you gradually expose yourself to the phobia-triggering stimulus. Start with less intimidating exposures and work your way up, if you are brave enough.
  • Self-Help Resources: Explore self-help books, online forums, and support groups that focus on your specific phobia. Sharing experiences and strategies with others can be comforting and enlightening.
  • Positive Self-Talk: Challenge intrusive thoughts and replace them with empowering affirmations. Your self-talk can play a significant role in managing your phobia.
  • Reward System: Create a reward system for yourself. Celebrate small victories and progress made in facing your fear. This can motivate you to continue your journey towards conquering your phobia.

If you grapple with irrational phobias, remember that you are not alone. 

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