The best treatment for specific phobias is a form of psychotherapy called exposure therapy. Sometimes your doctor may also recommend other therapies or medication. Understanding the cause of a phobia is actually less important than focusing on how to treat the avoidance behavior that has developed over time.
The goal of treatment is to improve quality of life so that you're no longer limited by your phobias. As you learn how to better manage and relate to your reactions, thoughts and feelings, you'll find that your anxiety and fear are reduced and no longer in control of your life. Treatment is usually directed at one specific phobia at a time.
Talking with a mental health professional can help you manage your specific phobia. Exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective treatments.
- Exposure therapy focuses on changing your response to the object or situation that you fear. Gradual, repeated exposure to the source of your specific phobia and the related thoughts, feelings and sensations may help you learn to manage your anxiety. For example, if you're afraid of elevators, your therapy may progress from simply thinking about getting into an elevator, to looking at pictures of elevators, to going near an elevator, to stepping into an elevator. Next, you may take a one-floor ride, then ride several floors, and then ride in a crowded elevator.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves exposure combined with other techniques to learn ways to view and cope with the feared object or situation differently. You learn alternative beliefs about your fears and bodily sensations and the impact they've had on your life. CBT emphasizes learning to develop a sense of mastery and confidence with your thoughts and feelings rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.
Generally psychotherapy using exposure therapy is successful in treating specific phobias. However, sometimes medications can help reduce the anxiety and panic symptoms you experience from thinking about or being exposed to the object or situation you fear.
Medications may be used during initial treatment or for short-term use in specific, infrequently encountered situations, such as flying on an airplane, public speaking or going through an MRI procedure.
- Beta blockers. These drugs block the stimulating effects of adrenaline, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, pounding heart, and shaking voice and limbs that are caused by anxiety.
- Sedatives. Medications called benzodiazepines help you relax by reducing the amount of anxiety you feel. Sedatives are used with caution because they can be addictive and should be avoided if you have a history of alcohol or drug dependence.