Dr. Deb's Mental Health Vitamin: Phobias

Dr. Deb Wade

By Dr. Deb Wade
GCU Vice President, Counseling and Psychological Services

Haunted houses … horror movies … frightening costumes … this is the stuff of Halloween! Are you up for a good scare?

It’s that time of year again … when the child inside each of us can put on a playful or scary costume, can knock on the doors of our neighbors and shout “Trick or treat,” can run through a haunted house with reckless abandon or can cuddle up on the couch and watch a scary movie!

All meant for fun … Halloween can be something for the young AND the young at heart!

By the way, what about those horror movies and those haunted houses? Deep inside of you, is there a fair amount of real fear and fright that goes beyond the fun part of it?  

You know, fear is a good thing. It proves to be an excellent survival skill passed through the generations to thwart the evils (real or imagined) that lurk among us.

In fact, each day of today’s world can be quite scary, too. We teach life-preserving fears to our children routinely – we warn then about busy streets, cliff edges, hot stoves and talking to strangers.

So, yes, fear is a good thing – it warns us of pending dangers and lurking strangers and gives us the notion to take protection or find solution!

However, like so much else in life, too much of something can quickly turn from being “OK” to being “concerning.” Fear is one of those somethings. Too much fear can be debilitating, impairing and life-impacting. Taken to an extreme, it can inhibit healthy functioning and can make people experiencing such extremes feel as if they’re in a daily prison with no escape route.

Phobias (extreme or irrational fears of or aversion to something) are among the most common mental disorders in the U.S., according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Approximately 10% of people in the U.S. have specific phobias, 7.1% experience social phobias and 0.9% have agoraphobia. Whether you're terrified of spiders or heights or speaking in public, you are not alone.

Unfortunately, though, phobias left untreated can ultimately lead to an extreme case of agoraphobia, which can imprison people as they experience fear or contemplate even the thought of going outside their “safe place.”

Healthy fear provides caution, protection and healthy behavioral response. (Walking down the street at night, I began to imagine strangers lurking around the next corner, so I quickly retreated to the safety of my car and decided to drive to my destination.) 

Phobias evoke a strong, persistent fear of situations, objects, activities or persons, and the response is an excessive, unreasonable desire to avoid the feared subject. (Walking down the street at night, I began to imagine strangers lurking around the next corner, so I retreated and decided to never, ever walk in the dark again.) 

What to do? A good therapist can help an individual understand the phobia, determine a healthier response to the phobia and ultimately triumph over the phobia.

A common therapeutic intervention is to use imagery – or, to a grander extent, flooding – to ultimately desensitize the individual to the feared thing. The reality is that the more one runs from the feared object, the bigger the feared object becomes in his/her psyche, which only emboldens the phobia itself.

An example of flooding: A female client had an unreasonable fear of driving on freeways. Living in a large, metropolitan area, this lady was greatly debilitated by her fear, and going anywhere took hours of time strategically planning her route to go around all freeways and to stay on side streets.

As her therapy progressed, the goal was to get on the freeway in small increments until she had mastered taking a complete trip to her destination on a freeway. Her assignment: “Take the freeway – get on the entrance ramp and go to the first exit and get off. Call that ‘Success.’”

She initially was daunted by the exercise. After taking the first step, though, she was almost giddy over this accomplishment because she knew that freedom from her fear was literally “right around the next corner!”

If you suffer from fear that has turned into a phobia, help is available! Remember, phobias left untreated have an overwhelming chance of becoming more generalized and, ultimately, debilitating.

Halloween is meant for scary costumes and little children emboldened by their new identities to shout, “Trick or Treat!”  Let’s keep the fun in Halloween but take the extremes out of our fears so that we can live in freedom, indeed.

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Bible Verse

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. (1 John 3:1)

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