Treatment for specific phobias often focuses on behavioral therapy, but other therapies or medication might also be recommended.
Specific phobias usually center on one particular thing — an object, a situation, or a circumstance. Maybe you have a fear of flying or driving over bridges. Or perhaps the mere thought of snakes or spiders sends you into a tailspin.
Whatever specific phobia you have, the fear can become so overwhelming that you go out of your way to avoid it.
If you have a specific phobia, you’re not alone. Many people admit to having at least one fear, whether that be of dogs, bugs, the dark, water, or clowns.
Phobias can be exhausting. They can also interfere with day-to-day life, preventing you from traveling, going into certain places, or even watching movies or TV shows.
The good news is that specific phobias can be treated. There are many ways to find relief from your symptoms and ease your anxiety.
If you have a specific phobia, you probably know that your fear is not rational, but even mentioning or facing the object or situation can cause intense anxiety or even bring on a panic attack.
According to the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the following symptoms associated with specific phobias must be met for an accurate diagnosis:
- You have a persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable toward specific objects or situations.
- Exposure to the object or situation causes immediate anxiety.
- Your fear is greater than the actual threat.
- You avoid the object or situation at all costs.
- The phobia interferes with your daily functioning — routines, relationships, work, school, etc.
- The phobia has been present for at least six months.
- The phobia is not due to another mental health disorder or medical condition.
If any of this describes you, consider discussing it with your primary care doctor. They may be able to refer you to a mental health professional who specializes in treating this condition.
If a mental health professional is not available, consider getting mental health support through an online program.
There is no medical or blood test for specific phobias. The doctor will likely gather information about your symptoms.
So, before your first appointment, try to make a list of your physical and psychological symptoms, including your triggers, things that make your symptoms worse, how you cope with your phobia, and how the phobia has impacted your life.
Like most anxiety disorders, specific phobias can be treated with a combination of therapy and medications. But research has shown that the best treatment for specific phobias is exposure therapy.
A key goal with therapy is to teach you methods that will help you better handle the fear and anxiety when they arise.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, used for people living with anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias.
The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to identify negative thoughts and behaviors in anxiety-inducing situations and replace them with more positive behaviors.
In this type of therapy, you’ll learn strategies to help identify distorted thoughts, patterns of unhelpful thinking, and your reactions to the specific object, situation, or circumstance that triggers your phobia. Then, you’ll work with the therapist to change those thoughts and reactions.
Exposure therapy is one of the most commonly used forms of therapy for specific phobias. This type of therapy involves facing the very thing causing your anxiety.
In this therapy, you’ll gradually approach the object or situation that causes you fear and anxiety. This technique is done slowly, safely, and systematically. You might also learn breathing or other relaxation techniques to help manage your anxiety.
There are three ways exposure therapy can be performed:
- In vivo. You face the feared object or situation in a real-life setting in a safe and controlled way.
- Imaginal. You imagine the feared object, situation, or circumstance to incite fear and anxiety and help reduce feelings of fear.
- Virtual reality. Using computer simulation, you face the phobia in a safe and controlled environment.
Research shows that
Systematic desensitization can also be used in exposure therapy. This works by gradually exposing you to the anxiety-provoking object or situation while having you practice relaxation techniques.
Studies examining the use of systematic desensitization in reducing anxiety related to specific phobias have found that exposure therapy techniques lead to improvement and remission of symptoms.
Relaxation techniques that are often paired with exposure therapy may include progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing exercises.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is often used to treat trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There’s not much research to support the use of EMDR for specific phobias. However, parts of this type of therapy might be adapted to help treat specific phobias.
During EMDR, you will focus on traumatic memories while paying attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound, such as a moving finger, flashing lights, or a beeping tone.
There is some
Medications are not typically recommended for specific phobias. However, if the phobia starts to interfere with day-to-day life and symptoms become more challenging to manage, medications — such as anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants — might be helpful to lessen symptoms of anxiety.
Also, it might be helpful to start medications if you are beginning psychotherapy treatment, which can initially increase feelings of anxiety.
Antidepressants, particularly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are often used to treat specific phobias.
SSRIs regulate the levels of serotonin — a neurotransmitter responsible for mood — in the brain. They are often first-line treatments for many forms of anxiety. SSRIs have been shown to help reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Common SSRIs used for anxiety include:
Other antidepressants that may be used to treat specific phobias include:
- serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
Your doctor will work with you to find the right medication for you based on your symptoms and your lifestyle.
Benzodiazepines are one of the most common anti-anxiety medications, but due to their tendency to cause physical dependence, they are often only prescribed for short periods.
These medications work by increasing the effect of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA — a neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for sending calming messages to the body.
Some common benzodiazepines include:
These medications have a sedating effect, so they don’t mix well with alcohol.
If you’re taking a benzodiazepine, consider talking to your primary care physician or mental health professional before stopping the medication.
Beta-blockers are a class of medication often prescribed to treat heart-related conditions, such as high blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat, or heart failure.
However, many healthcare professionals may also prescribe them to help manage symptoms of anxiety.
These medications work by preventing adrenaline — a stress-related hormone — from connecting with the heart’s beta receptors. This helps to prevent your heart from pumping too hard and fast.
Some of the common beta blockers prescribed for anxiety include atenolol (Tenormin) and propranolol (Inderal).
In addition to traditional treatments like medication and therapy, there are things you can do at home to help reduce your anxiety related to specific phobia.
Deep breathing exercises
Learning deep breathing exercises can help you remain calm and soothe your body’s responses whenever you have to face your phobia.
When you are confronted with the object, situation, or circumstance that causes you fear and anxiety, your body might respond by increasing your breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure.
Taking a few deep breaths in that moment will help you relax and calm your anxiety. Though breathing is automatic, this type of breathing involves the conscious act of taking long, deep breaths.
These exercises are often used during therapy.
Aerobic exercise is a type of conditioning that may include running, walking, swimming, or jogging.
There is growing evidence suggesting that aerobic exercise can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), a 10-minute walk is just as helpful as a 45-minute workout at relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Scientists have shown that people who are physically active have lower rates of anxiety than those who are not.
So, when you feel that anxiety and fear start to rise, consider taking a short walk around the block to calm those feelings.
Mindfulness focuses on centering your thoughts in the here and now and accepting how you feel in the moment. By acknowledging how you feel when facing your phobia, you might be able to lessen those feelings of panic and anxiety.
Mindfulness strategies include:
- breathing exercises
Research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can be helpful in reducing anxiety when used in combination with therapy.
Having a phobia can be frustrating and scary at times. If you have anxiety due to a specific phobia, you do not have to face your fears alone.
There are plenty of resources available.
Many people find that reaching out to friends and family for support can help. If your symptoms feel overwhelming and unmanageable, you might also consider talking with your primary care physician or a mental health professional — whether that’s in person, on the phone, or via video chat.
A professional will be able to provide more information on treatment options and recommend other helpful coping strategies.