[Audio] Spiders, Heights, Flying & Germs... Facing Your Fears Through Psychotherapy

Oct 21, 2015

Credit Tobias Arhelger, 123rf Stock Photo

As we approach Halloween, we might be also exposing ourselves to phobias, like Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders. Since the upcoming holiday is a time to be scary and spooky, Tracy Ross speaks with Dr. Michael Bordieri of the Murray State Department of Psychology about phobias and fear through the lens of psychotherapy.

How we view fear has changed over the past 100 years, says Dr. Bordieri. Why people are afraid of things about spiders and appealing to the subconscious emerged in study when Sigmund Freud popularized that fear revealed a deep seated unresolved psychological conflict. This changed in the early 20th century when John Watson became interested in seeing if fear can be learned. His famous experiment with Little Albert caused a baby to have a fear of rabbits, a cruel idea in hindsight, but opened up an important piece of understanding how fears can be acquired. Thankfully, today's psychologists have learned how to treat phobias, he says.

Arachnophobia

Fear of spiders and other creepy crawly critters top many lists of phobias. There is a suggestion that we're biologically predisposed to be more fearful of some things than others, Dr. Bordieri says, adding that creepy sensations on the skin can cause fear and panic. Fear is adaptive, he says, it's something we don't want, but can help when dealing with dangerous situations. The things that happen when we become afraid help prepare or bodies to get away and get to safety - the fight or flight response. When it comes to phobias, that alarm system activates for situations that aren't life threatening.

Acrophobia, Agoraphobia, Claustrophobia

Fear of heights, open and crowded spaces, small spaces... Fears are specific to the individual and understanding these fears come down to an individual's history. People can have phobias of anything, Dr. Bordieri says, from a fear of balloons (Globophobia) to pickles (Lachanophobia - vegetables in general). While some of these make for entertainment on daytime television, they can also be serious. Fortunately, he says, while we have the capacity to develop a strong phobia of anything, we also have the capacity to overcome them.

Aviophobia

The fear of flying is quite common, usually this comes with the feeling of not being in control. Though statistics show that one is more likely to be injured or killed to drive to the airpot than on the plane, fears aren't always logical, but rather psychological. This can make treatment challenging and usually the way to help is to put people in the position where they are in contact with their fear and then work on ways of moving past that.

Germaphobia

Beyond phobias, the fear of germs often comes up in those with obsessive compulsive disorders. Being sick isn't pleasant and historically healthy people have been more able to reproduce and survive, he says, but when taken to the extreme, phobias like this can cause one to close down and live a life that's incredibly distressing and painful - where individuals might not leave their house at all. It's all about striking a balance, he says, with some willingness to recognize that there are germs in the world and while you might get some of those, chances are you'll still be okay.

Treating Phobias

While each phobia requires a little bit of different handling, there's largely a blanket approach for treatment. It's exactly what you hope it won't be, he says, which is getting in contact with what you're afraid of. In psychology, this is called exposure therapy. For example, a treatment lab has spider terrariums and they'll come out in treatment. Exposure therapy is not a matter of facing fears just for the sake of them, but practicing being in touch with what you're afraid of. Over time, people adapt and learn how to live with the things that fear them. While the idea of "flooding" was popular briefly in the 50s and 60s, where you'd "throw the box of snakes" on someone, the practice today involves moving up, gradually over time, and learning that while spiders may not be pleasant, they don't need to have control over someone's life.