The Easiest Psychological Disorder to Treat: Specific Phobia

by | Nov 25, 2018 | Mental health problems | 2 comments

What causes phobias? Let’s look at dog phobia as an example. Being bitten or scared by a dog can lead to a phobia, especially in someone predisposed to feeling anxious. 

Seeing someone else get attacked by a dog can also trigger a phobia. Once a specific fear develops, some individuals do exactly the wrong thing – they avoid dogs at all costs. Escaping from a situation with a dog brings great relief – reinforcing the tendency to escape. 

The person becomes more and more fearful and avoidant. The phobia reaches full bloom.

In what way are specific phobias easy to treat? The treatment with the most evidence of effectiveness is gradual exposure in a safe setting. 

The person might look at a drawing of a small dog for several minutes. Later the person might look a photo of a dog. 

Exposure trials become slightly more challenging as the person builds confidence. Eventually, the person gains exposure to actual nice dogs with their owner.

I have supervised exactly this treatment with a phobic child. The treatment worked like a charm. In studies of treatment of various types of phobias, the cure rate is about 85 per cent. 

When I ran a phobia elimination project some years ago at the UNE Psychology Clinic in Armidale, first-year clinical psychology students had almost exactly this rate of success with clients. 

The treatment can be provided in one session of a few hours or over four or five 50-minute sessions. There usually are home assignments also. The effects of treatment tend to endure, as long as the phobic individuals continue to expose themselves to what they used to fear.

Who can treat phobias effectively? The best bet is someone with training and experience in gradual-exposure treatment of phobia – possibly a psychologist. 

Here are two questions to ask a prospective therapist: How many individuals have you treated for specific phobia? What percentage reached the treatment goal?

Why do I say “specific” phobias? Because there is a different type of phobia called social phobia. It includes fear of public speaking and also more pervasive fear of social situations. Individuals with a pervasive type of social phobia can be harder to cure than individuals with a narrow fear of public speaking or of some object such as mice. 

Have I ever had a specific phobia? Sure. Starting in childhood, I had a phobia of diving into water. 

After completing part of my training in psychology, I gave myself gradual-exposure treatment for the phobia. 

The experience was scary at times but effective. I went on to become a scuba diver.

Why do so many individuals with a phobia not seek treatment? There are many reasons, but I will give one reason specific to individuals who have a phobia: They are afraid that they will have to face what they fear. They are right about facing what they fear, but they do not understand that the treatment, if done properly, is so gradual that they are very likely to be able to get through it and to overcome their fear and avoidance.

Do you have a phobia?


[Photo by Mitchel Wijt on Unsplash}


  1. I suffer terribly from emetophobia, which is rather awful since I spend a lot of time at the hospital for a chronic illness and am often exposed to patients who have a tendency to vomit for one reason or another.

    Quite a few people who say they share my phobia say they are triggered by others’ vomiting by becoming *physically* sick themselves. Not me. I freeze in terror… freeze, except for the wracking sobs I embarrass myself with each and every time. It’s excruciating – to say nothing of utterly embarrassing – to have to explain to strangers why I’ve suddenly become unstable-looking!

    I’m 60 y/o and have been psychologically unable to swallow pills at all. (I can swallow food fine.) I’ve tried alllll the tricks (trust me – ALL of them) to no avail. So I bought a heavy-duty, cast iron, hospital-oriented pill crusher and get the powder down in a spoonful of ice cream. No, I don’t like ice cream, but it’s the best disguise due to its cream content. Apple sauce, jello, etc., don’t work.

    Anyway, I think I must have had some traumatic and debilitating psychological event when I was young.

  2. Hi Sandi. You can get over emetophobia or lessen it greatly thru gradual exposure with a good psychologist.

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