by Chris Lewis Ed.S., LPC

Airplanes. Flight. Flying. Those are just a few of the words that for a good chunk of my life would have sent my heart rate soaring just upon hearing or seeing them. In fact, the word soaring? Same thing. Have you ever been on a flight seated next to someone who was clutching the arm rests as if that action alone might be responsible for keeping the plane in the air, never mind the laws of physics and aerodynamics? That might have been me.

I was certain that I could read disaster in the faces of my flight attendants, sure that they had heard from the captain that our flight was doomed, and they were putting on their brave faces for our sakes. The trouble was that no matter how often I flew, certain that I was about to plummet catastrophically into the earth below, and no matter how often that didn’t happen, I still experienced panic during every second of every flight. For years.

Does this sound familiar to you? If not flying, do snakes or bugs or dogs or being outdoors have a similar effect on you? There are nearly as many phobias as there are people on the planet, and whatever the object of the fear, it can become crippling and limiting. When we fear something, we tend to avoid it. When we avoid something and survive, our brains can sometimes make a faulty association that it was avoiding the stimulus that saved us; therefore exposure to it will certainly harm us.

Phobias are very strong fears of very specific people, places, or things. Phobias can be so compelling that we continue to believe there is danger even in the presence of evidence that what we fear is actually safe. When individuals with phobias are exposed to the object of their fear, symptoms can include extreme anxiety, sweating, trembling, and feeling that danger is imminent.

When phobias are left untreated, they can increase in intensity and scope, and can lead sufferers to try to eliminate any chance of exposure to the feared object to the extent that they become afraid to leave their homes. If you or someone you know is experiencing a phobia, there is very good news.

Phobias are treatable. They are a severe form of anxiety, and effective anxiety treatment can enable a sufferer to conquer their fears and resume life without this limiting and frightening disorder.

Treatment for this form of anxiety involves gradually exposing a person to the object of their fear, first through simply thinking of that object or looking at photos of that object. This is done in conjunction with stress and anxiety reduction techniques, so that as the sufferer increases their exposure, their anxiety and fear are reduced in an incremental manner. This treatment is called Systematic Desensitization.

Systematic Desensitization is done as a partnership between therapist and client, so that the client has trust in the therapist to ensure their safety during the work. It is a highly effective treatment for anxiety and can often be completed in a short period of time, but it is important to do this as soon as you know you have a phobia. The longer you wait, the more entrenched the behavior becomes.

How do I know it works? I fly now. Comfortably. Obviously with the benefit of an airplane, but I do fly and actually enjoy it. On my first flight several years ago after a 17-year hiatus due to my fear, I passed the captain in the aisle and bravely said, “This is my first flight in 17 years!” Captain FunnyGuy didn’t miss a beat. “Me, too!” I still took that flight and, as it turns out, you can have a really mean sense of humor and still fly a plane pretty well!

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.