A treatment for phobia

Oft used by behavioral therapists - during the course of therapy, the sufferer is directly confronted with the object of their loathing or fear. This may be carried out over a period of time, introducing first the idea of confrontation, building up to actually facing the feared circumstance or object.

It is sometimes known as flooding,and can also be used in habit-breaking. The underlying principle is that the sufferer is flooded with experiences of a particular kind to the extent that the client either builds an aversion or becomes inured to them.

The first outcome is sought to break habits, for example, giving up smoking. I used this, chain-smoking pack after pack until I felt sick. It was easier to avoid outting a fag in my mouth and lighting up after this experience.

The second outcome is sought to overcome fears and phobias - a friend of mine successfully overcame her morbid arachnophobia after this type of treatment.

How it Works

The idea behind it is that the effort involved in continuing the emotional response is too great, and eventually, the client "gives up" the fear, simply because it costs too much to carry on. Oe example from 1960 involved a young woman who was terrified of riding in cars. The therapy consisted of bundling her into a car and driving her around for 4 hours. According to the researcher, "her fear attained heights of hysteria but she gradually subsided and relaxed and, by the end of the trip, her fear of cars had gone".

The methods used vary from one practitioner to another. Some begin with photographs of the feared object, with intense discussion and visualisation techniques, or hypnotherapy. This moves on to active confrontation with the object of fear, and finally the resolution of the phobia.

Many feel that whilst it can have tremendous benefits for some types of phobia (snake phobia is said to be difficult to treat, for example), it is "poor at producing long-term desensitisation to stimuli that elicit fear or panic", in other words, the effects are likely to decline over a long period of time.

Warning: this type of therapy is potentially dangerous, and should only be undertaken after careful consultation with a qualified practitioner, and under their direction.

New Scientist magazine, 8 May 2004

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