The Project: Expert reveals how to treat phobias

Phobias may seem like strange, irrational fears, but they are backed up by science.

On Tuesday's episode of The Project, psychotherapist Kyle MacDonald revealed the facts behind the fear as part of 'Phobia Week' on the show.

A phobia is an intense fear caused by the brain hijacking its emergency response, but for harmless triggers - resulting in the anxiety disorder known as a phobia. It's not genetic, but there is evidence to suggest those with phobias could be born with a predisposition. 

Genetics, evolution and brain mechanics are the culprits for this anxiety disorder. While the science is complicated, the solution could be a simple rewire - as treatments like exposure therapy are available.

MacDonald says psychotherapists measure the severity of phobias by their interference with everyday life.

"We measure the severity of any psychiatric problem by how much it interferes at an everyday level," he told The Project.

"Exposure therapy is one treatment option, but also dealing with anxiety in a more general way - often people who have phobias are also generally quite anxious by disposition."

Exposure therapy operates like a "brain workout", meaning patients are gradually exposed to and confronted with their fear in order to dull the amygdala's response to the phobia (a part of the brain associated with memory and emotion).

MacDonald says children with phobias should learn relaxation techniques to help manage their anxiety more broadly.

"Don't concretise it too much," he advised parents.

"Kids get frightened all the time. Help them relax, and teach them anxiety management strategies like mindfulness, relaxation, breathing."

It is important that people with phobias learn to manage their fear. There are links between phobias and other mood disorders, like depression.

"If a phobia interferes in someone's life to the point it causes problems, that can bring the mood down," says MacDonald.

While many might see avoidance and an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach as the easiest way to manage a phobia, MacDonald says this can have the opposite effect.

"Once we start to avoid what we're afraid of, the fear actually increases. With exposure therapy, we start to confront what we're afraid of, and over time hopefully the person will realise it's not terrifying," he says.


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