Your Life: Dear Miriam - How You Can Conquer That Phobia. for Ever; HEALTH

The Mirror (London, England), August 18, 2008 | Go to article overview

Your Life: Dear Miriam - How You Can Conquer That Phobia. for Ever; HEALTH


Byline: DR. MIRIAM STOPPARD

Sweaty palms, shallow breathing, dizziness and a faint sick feeling... We've all been there - whether it's sparked off by job-interview nerves or panic over a near-miss as you're crossing the road.

But if you avoid flying because you can't face the take-off, or would rather walk up 50 flights of stairs because lifts make you hyperventilate, you're among the one in 20 people who suffers from a phobia.

These range from the common (fear of dentists or spiders) to the downright odd (some people are afraid of balloons or buttons).

And fears can be more complex - for example someone with a social phobia may have an overwhelming fear of eating in public, meeting new people and public speaking. Depending on how often you come into contact with the trigger, it can disrupt your life and seriously affect friendships, work prospects and holiday choices. The good news is that there's help out there.

How it starts

Often, there's no obvious explanation for a phobia but most have their roots in early childhood and then develop in late childhood, teens or early 20s.

It could be triggered by a one-off experience - for instance, being temporarily trapped in a confined, enclosed space could lead to claustrophobia, while a social phobia can often be traced to an earlier, intensely embarrassing episode in a social situation.

Repeatedly recalling it may trigger symptoms, conditioning you to become anxious when you find yourself in the same circumstances.

Some phobias also run in families, perhaps because kids learn their parents' anxieties.

WHAT IT FEELS LIKE

Exposure to - or even just thinking about - the object, creature or situation leads to:

Intense anxiety

Dizziness and feeling faint

Palpitations (awareness of an abnormally rapid heartbeat)

Sweating, trembling and nausea

Shortness of breath

Going to great lengths to avoid a situation that wouldn't bother most people

4 ways to beat it

If a phobia is seriously affecting your life, talk to your GP. Most cases can be treated effectively with one of these methods:

(1) Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)

The most common phobia therapy is a type of CBT called desensitisation or exposure therapy. A therapist gives support while you're safely and gradually exposed to the object or situation you fear. Inevitably, you experience some anxiety but exposure is kept within bearable limits until, bit by bit, you can cope with confronting your fear. Ask your GP to refer you or find a private therapist through the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy at www.bacp.co.uk.

(2) Hypnotherapy Practitioners relax patients to try to take them back to the trigger of the phobia, which is often an innocent childhood encounter with something that seemed frightening at the time. When this old fear is released and talked through, patients often find their phobia improves.

(3) Drug therapy Some newer antidepressants such as seroxat are successful in treating phobias. Sometimes, for a one-off occasion, your GP may prescribe drugs called beta-blockers which may reduce anxiety, though they only offer shortterm relief and don't get to the root cause of the phobia or cure it long-term.

(4) Food therapy Some research has shown people with phobias experience similar symptoms to those with low blood sugar. …

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