How CBT Therapy Can Help Treat Phobias

Maggie Morrow Award Winning Therapist
Author: Maggie Morrow, Award Winning Psychotherapist, Counsellor & Life Coach
Last updated: 16th March 2023

cognitive behavioural therapy for phobias


Certain fears are natural and reasonable, but others seem excessive in the face of the level of danger presented. Such fears cause unnecessary pain and distress. They can undermine self-confidence, block enjoyment and prevent you from doing things you might need or want to do.

If you suffer from an intense fear or dread regarding certain situations or things, you may be suffering from a phobia.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is a particularly effective treatment for people wishing to deal with phobias.


How Can CBT Therapy for Phobias Help?

During and following a successful course of CBT therapy for phobias, you could expect to experience some of the following:

  • Discover new information and perspectives that enable you to understand why the phobia triggers such intense fear responses in you
  • Learn how particular forms of thinking and behaving keep you feeling phobic and what you can do to turn this around
  • Discover how different forms of thinking and behaving can reduce the intensity of your physiological response to the phobia, calm your fears and enable you to face the situation with more confidence
  • Learn how to manage or completely remove, your fear response when faced with the phobia
  • Become able to engage in a previous phobia situation with confidence, unhampered by debilitating fears


What is a Phobia?

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that involves an irrational or excessive fear of some thing or situation. People who experience phobias can feel overwhelmed by intense fear at the mere thought of encountering the phobia trigger.

Symptoms of Phobias

If you are suffering from a phobia you might experience one or all of the following symptoms, when you come into contact with a feared object or situation:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Fast heart rate or breathing
  • Sweating
  • Chest pains
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness</>
  • Depression

From a diagnostic perspective, in order to qualify as a phobia, the fear felt must be out of proportion to the reality of the trigger situation.


Common Phobias

Whilst people can develop a phobia to nearly anything, some phobias are more common than others. Below is a small sample of a few common phobias and how they can affect people:

  • Social anxiety disorder: This is an anxiety regarding the opinions and judgement of others. It might cause you to avoid interacting with people, particularly strangers, out of a strong fear of acting in an embarrassing way or not being liked by people.
  • Claustrophobia: This is a fear of being trapped or simply entering a confined space. It can cause people to avoid taking lifts, going on tubes or trains, or going out altogether.
  • Agoraphobia: This is a fear of crowded spaces and is often spurred by worry over not being able to escape if something happens. Sufferers might fear going into stores, cinemas, restaurants, sporting events, or public transportation, and it can often cause people to stay confined to their homes.
  • Fear of flying: This is a fear of going in an airplane, helicopter, or other flying object. It can restrict movement so much that it harms family relationships when it comes to going on holiday, or it can cause career problems when business trips require flights.
  • Fear of the dentist: A dental phobia can steer people to avoid receiving proper dental care, putting them at risk of gum disease and other dental conditions that are linked to serious health issues such as heart attack and stroke.


How Does Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Treat Phobias?

CBT Therapy is a talking therapy that shows how certain patterns and cycles of thinking and behaviour can have a detrimental affect on our healthy functioning.

Through a process of enquiry, psychoeducation and written exercises, a CBT therapist will help you understand what types of thinking and behaviour patterns you may be engaging in, that facilitate or exacerbate the phobia. Then through a series of further exercises and experimentation, your cognitive behavioural therapist will help you discover a new perspective and more effective strategies that enable you to reduce, manage and/or completely remove the phobia and related fears from you life.

A CBT therapist can also help you explore certain behaviours which facilitate and exacerbate the phobia. For example, many people with phobias go out of their way to avoid exposure to the things they fear, and exposure therapy can form part of the behavioural component of treatment. This can involve exercises of gradual exposure to the trigger, increasing over time, so eventually it doesn’t trigger a panic reaction anymore.

CBT therapy for phobias is most effective if you are able to actively engage in undertaking homework assignments. These might include keeping a journal, completing a thought record exercise or testing out a new behavioural strategy.


How long does it take to Overcome Phobias with CBT?

In general, weekly CBT sessions of about one hour, over a period of several weeks can be enough to help turn a phobia around. If there are other issues also affecting your psychological well being, such as generalised anxiety or depression, it might take a bit longer to achieve the outcome you are seeking.

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