Role of Behavioral Therapy in Treating Phobias

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Phobias don't require treatment unless they are causing clinically significant distress or the fear is preventing you from working, performing necessary daily tasks, or having healthy interpersonal relationships. For example, if you live in the U.S. and have a fear of tigers, you could avoid the zoo instead of spending time and money on phobia treatment.

Most forms of this type of anxiety disorder are able to be successfully treated. However, no single method of treatment works for all phobias. If you do seek treatment, the exact methods the therapist uses to help you may vary. Here is a look at some common types of therapy to treat phobias.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Phobias

A person who has a phobia believes that the feared situation is inherently dangerous. This belief leads to negative automatic thoughts that occur as soon as the feared situation is encountered and the automatic thoughts lead to a phobic behavioral reaction.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, enables you to manage your fears by helping you gradually change the way you think. It's based on the interconnectedness of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors.

It may take several CBT sessions to counteract this thought pattern. In the treatment of phobias, there is commonly a component of exposure. In order to accomplish this, the therapist can help you overcome your fear with incremental steps.

A sample treatment plan for a fear of dogs might include first reading about dogs, then watching a dog movie, and finally taking you to play with a harmless puppy.

Techniques commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy draw from the schools of behaviorism and learning theory as well as the school of cognitive theory.

Group Therapy to Help Ease Fears

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common type of group therapy for phobias, although many forms of therapy use this method. You may see advertisements for group CBT sessions for phobias, which may call the therapy session a seminar. The duration may be one hour or several days.

A group of people with a fear of flying, for example, may assemble at an airport hotel for the weekend, where they might engage in a combination of psychoeducational classes and exposure sessions inside the airport.

Individual Therapy

Individual therapy allows the therapist and client to focus on each other, building a rapport, and working together to solve the client's issue. Certain types of therapy, such as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, explore underlying conflicts and may progress for months or even years. Therapies more specifically targeted at behavioral change such as CBT are generally more time-limited.

Family Therapy 

If the therapist feels that your family situation may be contributing to the maintenance of the phobia, then she may suggest family therapy as part of a treatment plan. Family therapy is a common part of treatment plans for children with phobias.

Medications for Phobias

A good therapist will design a unique treatment plan to meet your needs. He might prescribe medication (which is more common for social phobia than for a fear of a specific object or situation). These medicines could include:

  • Beta-blockers to block the effects of adrenaline
  • Antidepressants, or SSRIs, to act on the serotonin in your brain
  • Sedatives to relax and reduce anxiety more acutely

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

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A Word From Verywell

Behavioral therapy can play an important role in the treatment of phobias. Exposure treatments that are rooted in behavioral approaches are frequently used as a first-line treatment for different types of phobias. However, they are not the only option, so you should talk to your doctor in order to determine what approach might be most appropriate for your needs.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. NHS UK. Phobias.

  2. Fenn, K., & Byrne, M. The key principles of cognitive behavioural therapyInnovait: Education And Inspiration For General Practice. 2013;6(9), 579-585. doi:10.1177/1755738012471029

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