Talk Therapy as a Treatment Option for Phobias

group sitting in a circle talking

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Talk therapy is one of the most common treatment options for phobias, although the specifics will vary according to the client’s needs and the therapist’s school of thought.

What Is Talk Therapy?

Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is based on the core idea that talking about the things that are bothering you can help with emotional distress. Some talk therapists follow a specific school of thought, such as cognitive theory or behaviorism. Others use a more eclectic approach, drawing techniques and principles from several different theories.

For specific phobias, a mental health professional (like a psychologist or psychiatrist) may use a combination of cognitive and behavioral strategies that includes exposure to the feared object or situation in their treatment plan. 

Effectiveness of Talk Therapy vs. Medication Therapy

There is an age-old debate in the mental health community regarding the usefulness of talk therapy as opposed to medication therapy. According to the medical model, mental disorders are the result of physiological causes and should be treated by medication and other biological interventions.

Proponents of talk therapy believe that mental disorders are largely based on reactions to one’s environment. Therefore, they can be treated through discussion, resolution of conflict, behavioral changes, and changes in thinking.

Today, most members of the mental health community feel that the combination of biological, psychological, and social factors contribute to development of mental health conditions.

Many therapists consider both medical and talk therapy solutions when devising a treatment plan.

Goals of Therapy

The ultimate goal of any type of therapy is to help the client feel better and deal more successfully with a disorder or a situation. The specific treatment goals depend on the individual client, the therapist’s theories, and the situation at hand. The goal may be specific, such as quitting smoking, or more abstract, such as improved self-esteem.

When talk therapy is used for phobia treatment, there are generally two goals. One is to help the client reduce their fear and anxiety, and the second goal is to help the client learn to change their response to the feared situation or object.

Some forms of talk therapy have a third goal. In psychoanalysis and related therapies, the goal is to discover and resolve the underlying conflicts and dynamics that caused the phobia or other disorder. In interpersonal therapies, the goal is to resolve problems in interpersonal relationships that have resulted from or contributed to the phobia or other disorder.

Progression of Talk Therapy

Talk therapy begins with an initial appointment, often referred to as an intake interview. During this appointment, you'll describe what brings you to therapy. This is known as the presenting problem.

The therapist will then ask questions to help clarify the nature of the problem, and its duration and severity. They will also try to determine your goals for therapy. By the end of the first session, the therapist will have the beginnings of a formulation of the problem and a potential treatment plan. This may be written as a formal document, or may just be shared with you as a guide to your treatment.

Despite the presence of a treatment plan, you should always work collaboratively with your therapist and remain in control of the choices in your therapy.

The issue may require more or fewer sessions than originally planned. Family members or friends may be invited to join in certain sessions. Auxiliary resources, such as support groups, may be recommended.

Group Talk Therapy

Although talk therapy is most commonly performed one on one, group talk therapy can also be effective. In traditional group therapy, the existence of the group plays a key role. A therapeutic milieu is an environment that is created within a group that provides structure, support, and a feeling of safety. Within a safe and trusting environment, group members often can express feelings, confront their own negative personality traits, and experiment with behavioral changes.

Of course, it takes time and effort to build a sense of community. The popularity of brief therapy has led to a different style of group therapy—the seminar. Time-limited to a single evening or perhaps a weekend, seminars could be seen as a type of group therapy. These short group sessions use cognitive-behavioral therapy methods that are presented to several people at once. The group setting may increase the confidence that can develop from seeing others successfully battle their own issues.

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By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.