Overcoming Phobias: Breaking Free from Fear of Fear Itself

by Glynis Sherwood MEd


What Are Phobias?


Phobias are a frustrating source of anxiety and panic that interfere with enjoyment of life and undermine one’s personal freedom.  A phobia is an unrelenting fear reaction – or panic response – to a situation, thing or activity that leads to avoidance behavior.  Frequently, the situation, thing or activity that provokes the fear and avoidance response actually poses little or no danger.  Examples of common phobias include fear of closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, driving, water, flying, dogs/cats, and injuries involving blood.  


Phobias are categorized into one of three main types: 1/ Social phobia – fear of people, public speaking or social situations, 2/ Agoraphobia – fear of being outside, and 3/ Specific phobias – particular situations, things or activities.


Causes of Phobias


Phobias arise for a variety of reasons.  Fear inducing events can cause phobias.  For example, a person who has had a car accident may become fearful of driving and avoid it altogether.  People who have had serious accidents, sustained an injury to themselves or others, or have a history of trauma, are more vulnerable to becoming traumatized as well as phobic.  Phobias can develop early in life in response to shock or other frightening experiences – e.g., a small child being thrown into water to ‘learn’ how to swim will likely panic, and may be at greater risk of developing fear of water.  


Phobias can also develop when anxiety gets paired with a neutral situation, thing or activity.  For example, a person who falls and breaks their leg while walking down a street, who then subsequently chooses to avoid that street in the future.


Another source of phobic responses has been attributed to role modeling by adults, whereby a child ‘inherits’ a phobia from a parent or care giver.  Children who have overly protective or distant parents are also thought to be more at risk of developing phobias, as they grow up believing the world is either unsafe, or that no one will protect them if they face a threat.


Therapy of Phobias


Fortunately phobias respond well to counselling and psychotherapy.  One of the main treatments for phobias is Imagery Desensitization Therapy, which can be conducted by a trained counsellor in their office.  Imagery Desensitization involves imagining a phobic situation in a relaxed state, until the anxiety surrounding the phobia is lowered or completely disappears.  Through repeated exposure to the feared object or situation in their imagination, the phobic individual gains a greater sense of control.  As they continue to face their fear while safe and relaxed, their anxiety gradually diminishes.  This approach is also effective in helping people over chronic grief and post traumatic stress disorder.


Another effective method to treat phobias is Hypnosis.  Hypnotherapy shares some similarities with Imagery Desensitization.  In a voluntary hypnotic state, relaxation is paired with focused and positive mental associations (images, thoughts, actions, sounds, symbols, etc.) to help the individual face the root of the object of their fears, and prepares the mind to maintain calm in any future phobia inducing situations.  


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is also used widely to help people overcome phobias.  CBT unearths negative beliefs that create the distorted thought patterns that make people fear the worst and cause them to feel anxious and phobic.  Once these core beliefs and thoughts have been identified and evaluated, they can be effectively challenged and replaced with more optimistic, reality based thinking.  


Almost all of the work of overcoming phobias can be done in a counsellor’s office, with a few exceptions.  Most notably, therapy for overcoming fear-inducing activities, such as driving after an accident, may benefit from field testing through a technique known as Exposure Therapy.  This approach is the final stage of ‘desensitization’ treatment, and occurs after guided imagery work has been completed successfully in the therapist’s office. Exposure Therapy is experiential, and involves confronting your fears directly in a safe, controlled environment.  In the aforementioned case of driving after an accident, exposure therapy would involve getting behind the wheel of a car and, eventually driving.  This real life experience would only occur after having visualized driving calmly in a number of stressful situations, such as rush hour or highways.


Phobias no longer have to be debilitating problems that restrict a person’s life.  With the right therapeutic approach, most phobias can be extinguished in 5 to 20 sessions.


Need help overcoming Phobias?   Visit my Anxiety & Stress Counselling web page.


Counselling is available online by Video worldwide.


Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Addictions Counsellor is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from long standing Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.  I look forward to hearing from you and helping you on the road to recovery!