Phobias Are Common, But Treatable
Maybe you’ve had sweaty palms before a first date. Or, you’ve stayed awake worrying all night before a big meeting. Most of us worry or get nervous every now and then. But, for people with anxiety disorders, these feelings occur all too often, and they may be overwhelming.
“Anxiety disorders are real, serious and treatable,” says Jerilyn Ross, M.A., L.I.C.S.W., president of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America and director of the Ross Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders in Washington, D.C.
Anxiety disorders also are quite common. About 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, many people suffer in silence.
Anxiety disorders can take several forms. Two of the most common forms are specific phobias and social phobias.
People with this type of anxiety disorder have an intense fear of something that poses little or no real threat. They begin to dread the feared object or situation, and they may go to great lengths to avoid it altogether. When a phobia causes you distress or interferes with your life, it may require treatment.
Specific phobias often begin with an upsetting event during childhood or adolescence. For instance, a boy who is bitten by a dog may come to fear all dogs. As a result, he may give up some of his favorite activities, such as meeting his friends at the park, for fear that he may run into a dog. Other common phobias include a fear of heights, water and closed-in places.
People with social phobia are extremely afraid of being watched and judged by others. They also worry constantly about embarrassing themselves. Even after realizing their fear is excessive, they feel powerless to control it. Social phobia usually starts early in life, and it may continue well into adulthood.
Many people are anxious about public speaking, meeting new people or even eating in front of others. For someone with social phobia, these types of situations may trigger extreme fear. There may be physical symptoms, such as blushing, a racing heartbeat or sweating, which may lead to even more anxiety. In turn, people with social phobia may take great pains to avoid such situations in the future. By doing so, the cycle escalates and they may become even more afraid the next time they face these situations.
If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk to your health care provider or a mental health professional. With treatment, many people overcome their anxiety. Without it, anxiety may worsen. Treatment usually involves psychotherapy, medication or both.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that aims to replace unwanted thought and behavior patterns with more desirable ones. For example, if you have social phobia, a therapist may help you understand that everyone isn’t watching and judging you. Or, if you have a specific phobia, a counselor may gradually expose you to the thing you fear until you’re no longer afraid.
“Take a fear of spiders,” says Dean McKay, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Fordham University and director of the Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Research in New York. “You may start by looking at pictures of all kinds of spiders. Then, you may get closer and closer to a spider in a jar. Finally, you may touch a harmless spider.”
Several types of medications are available to treat different kinds of anxiety. Antidepressants may help people with social phobia. Often, therapy and medication are combined. You may meet regularly with a counselor and also take medication every day.
Strategies for success
If you’re diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, these tips may help you make the most of treatment:
Be patient. Don’t expect to overcome deep-seated anxiety overnight. Instead, aim for gradual, steady progress.
If your therapist assigns “homework,” be sure to do it. You may find that, with practice, new ways of thinking and reacting become second nature.
If your doctor prescribes medication, ask how long it will take for you to feel the full benefits. And, ask about possible side effects, including how long they may last.
Write about it. “Keep a journal noting the things that make you anxious,” suggests Ms. Ross. You may become more aware of your triggers this way.
Learn relaxation techniques. Meditation and muscle-relaxation exercises may be particularly helpful in helping to control your anxiety.
Remember, if you’re feeling swamped by anxiety, reach out for help. Talk with your doctor, or call your nurse information service or employee assistance program, if you have access to one. They can’t promise you a life completely free from worry, but they may offer you hope for a future that isn’t ruled by fear.