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Do not be terrified

A couple years ago, I was talking with a friend. She mentioned that she had a big fear of driving over bridges. It bothered her so much that she often drove miles out of the way to keep from going over a high bridge or overpass. A co-worker confided in me that she had a fear of flying. She had wanted to go to conferences involving flying, but didn’t because of her fears. Another said that he had tried to have an MRI done and that he had to stop the procedure when he became panicked.

These folks are not simply scared of these actions, they all have a phobia. Phobias are uncontrollable and irrational fears of objects or situations. Common phobias include a fear of open spaces, of heights, animals, flying in an airplane, doctors, and dentists, to name only a few. In addition, people suffer from what are termed "social" phobias and these can include a fear of public speaking, being watched, a fear of crowds or examinations or even blushing in public. This type of phobia generally makes the phobic feel judged negatively by others. These are usually a bit more involved. With social phobias, there may well be more serious underlying causes and these can include previous life-experiences or even genetics. Sufferers of simple phobias usually function at a normal level in most aspects of their daily lives. It is like the applicants we serve: an ordinary person going through an extraordinary time.

Phobias tend to vary in severity among individuals. Some people simply work around and avoid the object of their fear and suffer only relatively mild anxiety. Others suffer full-fledged panic attacks with all the associated disabling symptoms. Phobias generally start with what therapists call “one shot learning”. An emotional (usually very frightening) experience happens to someone at a certain age and every time that person is confronted with the experience again, it produces the same terrifying emotions, even if rationally it does not make any sense. It was a learned behavior that only took one time (one shot) to learn.

Though simple phobias can sometimes last for years they are usually relatively easy to treat, mainly by the sufferer gradually facing the threat through a process called systematic desensitization. Another intervention is a relatively short and easy behavioral technique called anchoring. Most therapists are knowledgeable in these areas of intervention. Because it is learned behaviorally and there is much irrational thinking involved in the perpetuation of the fear, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the usual treatment of choice and the most effective. It involves changing thinking and behavior to bring about change in emotion or feeling. Some time back we spoke of how this pattern works: thinking>>doing>>feeling. The feeling is the end product and must be changed by first changing the thinking and behaving. The desensitization treatment method mentioned above is a type of CBT. So is the “anchoring” technique. It was used successfully with all of the folks above to remove their phobias.

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