At some point in our lives, we all face some kind of anxiety or a phobia. If it becomes unmanageable, we may seek help and treatment. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 28.8% of people in the United States suffer from general anxiety. Women are 60 percent more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men and 80 percent of those with anxiety disorders either do not seek treatment, or use treatments that are inadequate.

What causes phobias?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, presenting as an abnormal fear or reaction to a specific trigger. People have a variety of different phobias such as fear of being in a large crowd, fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of dogs, etc. To better understand these complex human responses and corresponding behaviors, one must identify the problem. Clinically speaking, the actual phobias are not observable behaviors. What is observable is the subsequent behavior. Treating the disease, therefore, requires first identifying the behavior. For example, if the person with anxiety tells the therapist that she is afraid to go out and/or go for a long drive, then the therapist identifies these behaviors as problematic behaviors and educates patients to identify these problematic behavior themselves. The therapist can teach patients how to track these behaviors. After identifying these behaviors, the therapist analyzes and highlights the person’s triggers. For example, if someone was in a car accident, they may exhibit anxiety responses, such as increased heart rate and sweaty palms every time they sit in a car. Over time this phenomenon becomes a learned behavior. Thus, they will repeat the same responses under the same conditions.

What phobias can do to our lives?

Phobias often lead to avoiding certain situations and can have a negative impact on a person’s quality of life. People avoid social events, eating in restaurants, certain foods, and even their own families. A previously negative paired event can trigger anxiety and result in uncomfortable and unsteady responses, such as palm sweat, heart palpitations, upset stomach, and heavy breathing, which may be repeated over and over in different situations.

How to treat phobias?

Research has shown that the science of Applied Behavior Analysis is an effective therapy for anxiety and phobias. Behavior therapists educate their patients as to how to measure their own problematic behaviors and decrease them. Treating phobia (explained as a behavioral response to anxiety-provoking paired events) requires identification of the experiences, which might have transformed a neutral event or object such as height or driving in a car, into a phobia-provoking event. A treatment strategy should address the patient’s current acts of avoidance directly.A behavior therapist can work with patients to help them learn how to identify and define the triggers in observable terms. The next step is to teach patients skills to un-pair the events that are responsible for anxiety and phobia’s actions. The last step is to use a replacement behavior for anxiety and phobic responses.


For additional information about phobias & its treatments, contact McLean Counseling Center in McLean, VA.