Many people with phobias resign themselves to living in fear, but this doesn't have to be the case as help is available.
However, there are no quick fixes. There’s no one way of coping with specific phobias that is guaranteed to work. Different strategies work for different people.
Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of Anxiety UK, says people are sometimes reluctant to see their doctor about a phobia, because they're embarrassed by it.
“They may think they don’t want to waste their GP’s time with something as trivial as a phobia,” she says. “But there really is nothing trivial about it.”
Your GP can refer you to your local primary care mental health team (PCMHT), which provides support and treatment for people with common mental health problems.
The PCMHT brings together counsellors, social workers and psychologists. It can offer one-to-one consultations, where you will be given self-help material and some basic therapy.
“It’s important that people know these teams exist because they are a great resource,” says Lidbetter.
If you don’t want to be seen by your GP, you can contact one of the organisations specialising in the treatment of phobias, such as Anxiety UK. They can help you find treatments that aren’t available.
Getting help for phobias
To cure certain phobias, treatment consists of some exposure to the things you are afraid of, in small manageable steps, to reduce youranxiety.
“You’re not hypnotised in the same way that you see on TV shows,” says Lidbetter. "You’re put in a relaxed state of mind and asked to see yourself confronting your fear with confidence.
“It can be useful for people whose anxiety is so acute that they’re not yet ready for behaviour therapy,” she adds.
For people with severe specific phobias, the most effective treatment is likely to be cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
CBT involves looking at your problems and working out ways of changing negative thoughts or behaviours.
Therapists often set clients homework to do in between sessions, which may include carrying out activities such as monitoring thoughts and feelings throughout the week, and entering these into a thought diary.
“With phobias, what you do in between the therapy sessions is as important as the sessions themselves,” says Lidbetter.
Tackling complex phobias
With complex phobias, such as social phobia and agoraphobia, lifestyle habits may be aggravating anxiety symptoms.
Tackling diet, fitness and sleep can help as much as therapy in treating the phobia. "You need to tackle complex phobia from several fronts to get the maximum benefit,” says Lidbetter.
“When they're anxious, people often eat or drink the wrong things, such as coffee, which can aggravate anxiety. It’s also important to get enough sleep and take regular exercise.”
Lidbetter says that exercising uses up excess adrenaline, a hormone that causes your heart to beat faster, and can therefore worsen anxiety symptoms.
With complex phobias it’s important to get help as soon as possible. "The longer you leave it untreated, the more entrenched it becomes," says Lidbetter.
Again, CBT is recommended, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and should be used as one of a combination of treatments.
To speed up access to treatment, the Department of Health has approved computer-based CBT, for use at home or at a medical or community centre.
FearFighter is a course of therapy delivered on the internet, available only through medical referral, for patients suffering from panic and phobias.
There is also a range of internet packages that can be very useful for those not requiring intense treatment, but who would like to improve the management of their phobia and anxiety.
Medication for phobias
Medication is only recommended in the short term, as it's best to see if other techniques, such as talking therapy, will work.
“Medication is also worth trying in combination with other therapies, if simple self-help techniques and lifestyle changes prove to be ineffective,” says Lidbetter.
The three main types of medicine that are used to treat anxiety issues, including phobias, are antidepressants, tranquillisers and beta-blockers.
Self-help groups are a good way of getting in touch with people with similar problems.
They will be able to understand what you're going through and may be able to suggest helpful ways of coping.
Members learn how to face up to fears together in a gradual, controlled way, so that eventually the anxiety should decrease.
"To have other people to help you along the way is really useful," says Lidbetter. "People share coping strategies and techniques. To know there are others out there experiencing the same feelings is reassuring.
"It doesn’t matter how many books you read, you don’t get the experience of living with a phobia that you would get from speaking to a real person."