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Feeling Fearful or Phobic
Like anxiety, fear can be normal and rational. But when fear is irrational and out of proportion to any real threat of danger, it may be a phobia, Ross says. Fearful of walking down dark streets alone at night? Pretty rational, because there is a potential for danger. But if you practically start hyperventilating at the thought of having to drive over a suspension bridge and you go out of your way to avoid having to do so, that’s a phobia. “A person with a phobia knows their fear is excessive and irrational but they just can’t help it,” Ross says. A phobia is “really a fear of the fear itself. People worry about panicking or losing control in the situation they’re afraid of.” Even phobias can fall along a spectrum from mild (the person can live with it) to major (it’s debilitating).
When it comes to treating phobias, cognitive behavioral therapy typically involves exposing the person to what they’re afraid of. Through gradual, repeated exposure and the help of relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, the goal is to help people change their response to the object or situation they fear so intensely. “The ideal therapy is actual real-life exposure. In a typical cognitive behavioral therapy session, the person is gradually exposed to the object or situation that triggers their anxiety--elevators, crowds, spiders or whatever the phobia is,” Ross explains. “Eventually the person becomes desensitized to the frightening feelings.” In some instances, medications can be helpful, too.
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