Phobias and Alternative Medicine

Phobias (from the Greek phobos, meaning fear or flight) are irrational and disabling fears that produce a compelling desire to avoid the dreaded object or situation. A phobic person understands that the fear is excessive or ground-less, but the effort to resist it only brings more anxiety. Phobias affect about 7 percent of the population, often beginning in childhood.

Specific phobias are the most common; they involve things such as school, dentists, driving, water, balloons, -snakes, fat, age, high places (acrophobia), and enclosed spaces (claustrophobia). The fear is usually not of the object itself but of some dire outcome, such as falling from an air-plane. Even though phobica acknowledge that their fear is excessive, this knowledge does not diminish their fear.

A victim of agoraphobia suffers multiple fears that center around three main themes: fear of leaving home, of being alone, and of being in a situation where one cannot suddenly leave or obtain help. If agoraphobia progresses, a person may go to almost any lengths to avoid leaving home.

In social phobia, which often affects adolescents, a person's central fear is of being humiliated in public. People with this kind of phobia may even balk at eating in a restaurant. They avoid public speaking, parties, and public lavatories; such situations and places may bring blushing, palpitations, sweating, tremors, stuttering, or faintness. As many as 25 percent of professional performers struggle with severe, lifelong performance anxiety-a form of social phobia. A person whose phobia is left untreated may become withdrawn, depressed, and socially incapacitated.

Causes

Some specific phobias can be explained by early traumatic events, such as the bite of a dog, but the majority have no obvious cause. Most are thought to be produced when an underlying fear or conflict is displaced onto an unrelated object. Agoraphobia may develop in response to repeated panic attacks. Precursors of social phobia may be observable early in childhood, but the true cause is unknown.

Treatment

The effectiveness of treatment depends partly on the phobia's severity. While some phobias are never completely cured, many people can learn to function effectively, especially after attending phobia clinics and support groups including people who have recovered from phobias.

Conventional Medicine

For specific phobias, treatment by systematic de-sensitization therapy is highly successful. For example, someone who is afraid of flying may be led through a series of steps, beginning with looking at pictures of airplanes in the relaxed environment of a therapist's office. This is followed by an imaginary trip in an airplane, then a visit to an airport, and finally an actual flight. Each stage should be accompanied by relaxation techniques. The support of a trusted person is very important.

Treating social phobia usually involves gradual exposure to social situations, along with role playing and rehearsal. Individuals are taught to reduce anxiety and encouraged to be less self-critical and learn appropriate behavior. Medications may also be used. Many musicians, actors, and Iccturers reduce their symptoms with beta-adrenergic blockers (such as propranolol).

The best treatment for agoraphobia is to gradually move out into the places and situations that trigger anxiety. Taking small steps each day, in the company of a trusted person, a sufferer eventually learns to cope with Situations that once inspired terror. This may be assisted by antidepressants (such as imipramine), which reduce the fear of panic. Antianxiety drugs may also be used, but with caution because of the risk of dependence. Relaxation techniques should be used to facilitate treatment.

Alternative Choices

Phobias are difficult to treat by yourself. A number of self-help therapies may help to ease the way, but they should be followed only with professional guidance.

Aromatherapy

Studies have shown that essential oil of lavender (Lavandula officinalis) can bring relief from anxiety. Carry a small bottle with you; sprinkle on a handkerchief to inhale at stressful moments.

Herbal Therapies

Valerian (Ualeriana officinalis) tea may ease anxiety. Pour a cup of boiling water over 1 to 2 tsp of the root and steep for 15 minutes.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnosis, in the hands of a skilled professional, may help reduce symptoms, diminish fear, and sometimes uncover the cause of a phobia.

Mind/Body Medicine

Numerous relaxation techniques, including yoga, meditation, and biofeedback exercises, can help reduce the anxiety that surrounds phobias.

At-Home Remedies

By taking one small step at a time, most phobic people can reduce their terrors and, in many cases, move beyond them. Work with a trusted friend or therapist. Here are some guidelines:

Feel free to ask for feedback or a reality check on a feared object or situation: Is it safe? Will it hurt me?

Practice shifting your thoughts in a positive direction-from "That dog will bite me" to "That dog is tied up and can't hurt me."

Prevention

Do regular deep breathing and relaxation exercises, especially when anxiety starts to rise.

Regular exercise helps burn up adrenaline, which accompanies panic attacks.

Avoid alcohol, barbiturates, and antianxiety medicine whenever possible; drugs simply mask the symptoms. Also avoid caffeine, which can mimic some of the symptoms of panic attacks.n

Adapted from "Alternative Medicine"

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