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A mental health professional can diagnose phobias after a detailed interview and discussion of both mental and physical symptoms. Social phobia is often associated with other anxiety disorders, depression, or substance abuse.
People who have a specific phobia that is easy to avoid (such as snakes) and that doesn't interfere with their lives may not need to seek treatment. In all types of phobias, symptoms may be eased by lifestyle changes, such as:
Meditation and mindfulness training can be beneficial to patients with phobias and panic disorder. Hydrotherapy, massage therapy, and aromatherapy are useful to some anxious patients because they can promote general relaxation of the nervous system. Relaxation training, which is sometimes called anxiety management training, includes breathing exercises and similar techniques intended to help the patient prevent hyperventilation and relieve the muscle tension associated with the fight-or-flight reaction of anxiety. Yoga, aikido, t'ai chi, and dance therapy help patients work with the physical, as well as the emotional, tensions that either promote or are created by anxiety.
Herbs known as adaptogens may be prescribed to treat the anxiety related to phobias. These herbs are thought to promote adaptability to stress, and include Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus), and ginseng (Panax ginseng). Adrenal modulators such as licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and borage (Borago officinalis), nervine herbs such as chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriafolia), and antioxidal herbs like milk thistle (Silybum marianum) are also beneficial. Tonics of skullcap and oats (Avena sativa) may also be recommended to ease anxiety.
When phobias interfere with a person's daily life, a combination of psychotherapy and medication can be quite effective. Medication can block the feelings of panic, and when combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy, can be quite effective in reducing specific phobias and agoraphobia.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy adds a cognitive approach to more traditional behavioral therapy. It teaches patients how to change their thoughts, behavior, and attitudes, while providing techniques to lessen anxiety, such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and refocusing.
One cognitive-behavioral therapy is desensitization (also known as exposure therapy), in which people are gradually exposed to the frightening object or event until they become used to it and their physical symptoms decrease. For example, someone who is afraid of snakes
Another more dramatic cognitive-behavioral approach is called flooding, which exposes the person immediately to the feared object or situation. The person remains in the situation until the anxiety lessens.
Several drugs are used to treat specific phobias by controlling symptoms and helping to prevent panic attacks. These include anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) such as alprazolam (Xanax) or diazepam (Valium). Blood pressure medications called beta blockers, such as propranolol (Inderal) and atenolol (Tenormin), appear to work well in the treatment of circumscribed social phobia, when anxiety gets in the way of performance, such as public speaking. These drugs reduce overstimulation, thereby controlling the physical symptoms of anxiety.
In addition, some antidepressants may be effective when used together with cognitive-behavioral therapy. These include the monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors) phenelzine (Nardil) and tranylcypromine (Parnate), as well as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline (Zoloft), and fluvoxamine (Luvox).
A medication that shows promise as a treatment for social phobia is valproic acid (Depakene or Depakote), which is usually prescribed to treat seizures or to prevent migraine headaches. Researchers conducting a twelve-week trial with 17 patients found that about half the patients experienced a significant improvement in their social anxiety symptoms while taking the medication. Further studies are underway.
Treating agoraphobia is more difficult than other phobias because there are often so many fears involved, such as open spaces, traffic, elevators, and escalators. Treatment includes cognitive-behavioral therapy with antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs. Paxil and Zoloft are used to treat panic disorders with or without agoraphobia.
Author Info: Paula Ford-Martin, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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