Psychological treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and relaxation techniques can treat phobias; medications can also be effective.

Phobia treatment may be necessary for someone who has a specific phobia that interferes with his or her daily functioning. When a phobia becomes difficult to manage without professional help, various mental health treatments are available and can reduce the impact that the phobia has on a person’s life.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a clinician helps a client to change irrational, uncomfortable thoughts that contribute to distress. Phobias involve irrational fears of certain objects or situations, so CBT can be helpful for overcoming a phobia.

A review of the research shows that CBT is especially effective for treating anxiety disorders like phobias. More specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias has been shown to improve social phobias after treatment, and this effect persists over the long term. Additionally, CBT techniques have also been found to be effective for specific phobias.

One study found that CBT changes the way that the brain responds to a feared object. In the study, participants who received CBT showed reduced hyperactivity in certain areas of the brain.

Exposure Therapy

According to the Society of Clinical Psychology, people maintain phobias by avoiding the object that fears them. Through exposure therapy for phobias, people can face the source of the phobia and learn that it is tolerable and perhaps not as frightening as they once thought.

Virtual reality exposure therapy uses computer programming to allow a person to virtually interact with the object or situation they fear. The research suggests that this form of exposure therapy is effective for reducing anxiety, and it may be slightly superior to real-life exposure situations.

Psychiatric Medication

While CBT and exposure therapy can be effective for treating phobias, some people may benefit from psychiatric medication for phobias, as these medications can treat anxiety. According to research, the medication venlafaxine, as well as a group of medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, are the first choice for treating social phobias.

Additionally, some people might benefit from taking gabapentin, or a group of anxiety medications called benzodiazepines, to treat phobias.

Psychiatric medication for specific phobias may also be helpful for some people. One study found that the drug paroxetine reduced fear and anxiety among people with specific phobias.

Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques for phobias may help some people decrease the fear and anxiety associated with the source of the phobia. A variety of applied relaxation treatments are available:

  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Guided imagery
  • Systematic desensitization

Some research shows that relaxation techniques generally reduce anxiety, making them useful for treating phobias.

Systematic Desensitization for Phobias

Systematic desensitization is a common relaxation technique for phobias. This form of treatment involves learning relaxation techniques, such as contracting and releasing various muscles, and then practicing these techniques while exposed to the source of the phobia.

With the help of a clinician, a person creates a hierarchy of frightening experiences associated with the feared item, beginning with the least frightening item. For example, a person with a mouse phobia may begin by practicing relaxation techniques while thinking about mice and then move up to using relaxation while viewing a video of a mice and then while seeing a live mouse in a cage. Over time, the feared item or situation is linked to relaxation instead of fear.

One study with individuals with a snake phobia found that this relaxation technique improved phobia symptoms when compared to a control group, and the effects persisted for six months.

How to Help Someone Struggling With a Phobia

Understanding that a phobia is a mental health condition is the first step toward knowing how to help someone with a phobia. It is important to listen to the person’s concerns and express that you understand their fears are real and uncontrollable.

Next, you can discuss with the person that a phobia is a diagnosable anxiety disorder for which treatment is available. You might encourage him or her to talk with a mental health professional to determine what treatment options are the most appropriate.

Additionally, to help someone with a phobia, you can:

  • Avoid telling them that their fear is ridiculous or irrational, which could lead to a defensive response
  • Help them find a local counselor or therapist
  • Offer to drive them to therapy appointments
  • Give them constant reassurance that they can overcome their phobia
  • Be available to listen if they want to talk about therapy or their experiences

Treating Phobias and Co-Occurring Disorders

There are numerous effective options available for treating phobias, but sometimes phobias can occur with other conditions, such as a drug or alcohol addiction. Treating phobias and co-occurring disorders requires a comprehensive treatment plan that addresses both the phobia and the other mental health condition.

If you or a loved one struggle with a drug or alcohol addiction and a co-occurring phobia, The Recovery Village can help. We have locations across the country and can provide personalized treatment. Contact The Recovery Village today to discuss your treatment options and to begin recovery.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.