When someone has a phobia, they often go out of their way to make sure they can avoid the thing or situation they're afraid of. Maybe they'll skip someone's wedding because they don't want to fly on a plane. Or maybe they refuse to come over because they're terrified of your cats. Or maybe they haven't opened their closet in months because the last time they did, they saw a spider.
Phobias are intense, although they're not always rational. When you have an excessive fear that interferes with how you live your life, it's usually a sign that you've transitioned over into phobia territory. But can you cure a phobia? Depends on what it is.
In general, any excessive fear can be considered a phobia, but most phobias are "highly circumscribed," meaning they're very specific, says Franklin Schneier, MD, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic and special lecturer in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. For example, someone might have a specific phobia of a particular animal, like a spider, or an environmental threat, like thunder. You can also have specific phobias of going to the dentist, flying, or heights. Even though they're not always logical, people with phobias often feel powerless and like they can't do anything to stop their fear, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Sometimes phobias are part of a different disorder — for example, "germ phobia" is often part of OCD, Dr. Schneier says. Phobias can also be their own disorder category, such as social phobia or agoraphobia, he says. These broader phobias are harder to treat than a specific phobia.
Luckily, specific phobias are highly treatable, but they're often mild enough that people don't end up seeking treatment, Dr. Schneier explains. More than 10 million people in the United States have a phobia, but only 32% of those people are receiving treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Schneier says you should seek treatment when you feel like your own efforts to overcome your fears aren't working. But what does treatment entail?
The "gold standard of treatment," according to Dr. Schneier, is something called behavioral exposure, in which you gradually expose yourself to your feared situation until your anxiety declines. There's also a technique called "flooding," which involves very intense exposure to the highly feared situation, and brings to mind that old reality show Fear Factor. "Understandably, most patients prefer the gradual approach," Dr. Schneier says. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also known to help phobias, and a therapist might help you reshape how you think about your phobia.
Usually, people only need to be in treatment for six to 12 sessions, but there are some people who opt for intensive, single-session treatments, he says. Some psychiatrists might also prescribe a short-acting anxiety medication to control your symptoms for a short period of time, Dr. Schneier says. "But these don't prevent future episodes," he says, because you can't control when you might be exposed to a trigger.
"There's good evidence that, for someone with a phobia, the fear memories don't disappear, even after successful treatment," Dr. Schneier says. Even though you've learned how to be calm when confronted with the thing that you're afraid of, usually your sense of fear is still strong in your mind, Dr. Schneier says. After a while, the fears might seem to disappear for a long period of time, or sometimes forever. "For all practical purposes, some people can be cured," he says. "However, the phobia can return under stressful situations."
The bottom line: If you feel like you have a phobia that's getting in the way of how you function in the world, you should consider getting treatment for that phobia. There are people who can help you, and treating your phobia likely isn't as scary as dealing with it alone.