Department of Psychiatry

Penn Behavioral Health

Specific Phobias


There are several effective treatments for Specific Phobia, described below.

Exposure Therapy: In this treatment, patients are gradually exposed to their feared situations repeatedly, until the situation no longer triggers the fear response. This can be done via “imaginal exposure” - i.e. imagining confronting the feared situation in one’s mind, or via “in vivo exposure” - confronting the feared situation in real life. Often, treatment plans combine the two techniques. Exposure is most effective when it is done frequently and lasts for long enough for the fear to decrease. In fact, in certain situations, exposure-based treatment has been shown to work in as little as one, longer session.

Cognitive Therapy: In this kind of treatment, people learn to identify their anxious thoughts and replace them with more realistic thoughts. For example, someone with a fear of driving is shown evidence that driving is, indeed, usually not dangerous. However, cognitive therapy alone is usually not an appropriate choice for people with specific phobias, as most individuals with phobias recognize that their fears are irrational.

Relaxation: Relaxation techniques - such as breathing retraining and exercise - can help individuals cope for effectively with the stresses and physical reactions related to their specific phobias.

Medication: There is little research on the use of medication and specific phobias. However, some people with situational-type phobias (i.e. flying) do note some benefit in taking anti-anxiety medications (i.e. Ativan) or serotonin reuptake inhibiters (i.e. Paxil) before confronting the feared situation.

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