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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

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The Fear Factor: Phobias

From aviophobia, the fear of flying, to zelophobia, the fear of jealousy, the list of phobias that harrow the human mind runs long.

Fear No More continued...

As the person became anxious, the stimulus would be removed, and he would be allowed to relax. Then they would start over again -- but up the ante and go one step further.

"Now, we are much more provocative in treating people with phobias," says Wilson. "Using cognitive-behavioral treatment, instead of allowing a person to relax after being exposed to the stimulus, we teach them how to manage their feelings."

The American Psychological Association defines cognitive-behavioral modification as "a therapeutic approach that combines the cognitive emphasis on the role of thoughts and attitudes influencing motivations and response with the behavioral emphasis on changing performance through modification of reinforcement contingencies."

Simply, if you change the way you think, it will change the way you act, and if you change the way you act, it will change the way you think.

"One of the shifts I've been making is to have people with phobias work on the attitudes they carry with them," says Wilson. "It's a game against the phobia: Invite the feelings that make you fearful and anxious and learn to tolerate them, setting aside relaxation as a core piece of treatment and using intensity instead -- that's the fastest way to get better."

It's also using more than one technique to solve the problem.

"Not all therapists stick to one treatment doctrine or another," says Hoganbruen. "Many combine several different techniques -- systemic desensitization, behavioral therapies, cognitive behavioral therapies -- into a treatment regimen."

Treating Phobias With Technology

The treatment of phobias is going high-tech as well, with virtual reality being used as a tool in helping people overcome their anxieties.

"Virtual reality is the other newer treatment being used for phobias," says Wilson. "It's three to four years away from being used on a broad basis because the equipment is so expensive to use, but there are four or five places in the U.S. that are using it today."

The University of Washington is one institution that uses virtual reality (VR), coupled with real life, in treating phobias. According to a news release, "Researchers at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab measured aversion and anxiety responses of students, some of whom had a clinical phobia of spiders, before and after undergoing VR therapy. During the therapy, some of the subjects touched a realistic model of a large spider while grasping a virtual one."

The combination of fact with fiction worked: Those students were able to come twice as close to a real spider after completing three therapy sessions, and reported a greater decrease in anxiety during treatment, than those who underwent VR therapy alone.

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