Many Fears, Many Therapies: Tame Your Frightful Mind with Talk Therapy

banish phobias for good!

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

When it comes to conquering phobias, a wide range of methods exist, from systematic desensitization to propranolol, a beta-blocker medication. Talking to people about your fears might accomplish the same thing, though. Professor Vishton explains.

Man in therapy session
Talk therapy involves “reconsolidation,” which is the process of replacing or disrupting a stored memory with a new version of the memory. Photo By Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

Talk Therapy for Phobias

In many situations, the person that you talk to about a phobia or fear is a therapist, but it doesn’t have to be. A wealth of evidence from the clinical psychology world suggests that talk therapy produces a reduction in anxiety associated with fear. Why is the process of talking about a phobia so effective?

We can choose from many different types of talk therapy, including Freudian psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapies, behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and integrative holistic therapy. As different as they all are, they all seem to work—not all the time, not with every person—but evidence suggests effectiveness for all of these different approaches.

It might be that, at least in terms of phobias, the benefits of talk therapy are based on the reconsolidation mechanism. Reconsolidation is the process of replacing or disrupting a stored memory with a new version of the memory. While you sit in a therapist’s office and have a conversation, you are—more or less—relaxed. 

As you discuss your fear, you will recall the things that have troubled you. As you reconsolidate those memories, over and over, while being in a relatively safe, calm environment, you will tend to weaken the associations between those memories and fear. As you do, you’ll gradually weaken the effects of the fear on your life.

Overcoming Llama Phobia

“My own fear of llamas has passed, I’m happy to report,” Professor Vishton said.

This particular phobia stems from a trip to the zoo as a young child, when a llama tried to eat his hair. As a 20-year-old, he made a trip to the same zoo, and his fear returned when he saw a llama.

“As soon as my friends, on that trip when I was 20, realized that I was terrified of this harmless llama—or rather as soon as they stopped laughing about it—they insisted that I immediately go over and pet him,” Professor Vishton said. 

Rather than take the slow, systematic desensitization route to curing his own particular phobia, which involves thinking about the phobia in a relaxed setting until the fear gradually dissolves, the collective peer pressure of his friends compelled him to make use of a much older treatment method for phobias—flooding, or continual exposure until the phobia subsides.

“In my case, for the first few minutes that I was with the llama, my terror remained,” Professor Vishton said. “I touched the llama, but very gingerly at first. Slowly, over the course of several minutes, I did calm down. Nothing bad happened.”

The llama did not attack. He formed new associations with the sights, sounds, and extreme smells of the llama. Those new associations greatly weakened the preexisting fear association. 

“I don’t love llamas,” Professor Vishton said. “To be honest, they still make me a bit uneasy, but the strong fear is gone; it stayed gone.”

The Flooding Method

This flooding method is a risky approach since if it goes badly, then the phobia may actually  become even stronger. Still, if you have one or more people supporting you, this can work for your fears if you want to take a faster but much less pleasant route to defeating them.

“Eliminating all fear would be a very bad thing,” Professor Vishton said. “But fear can limit the things that we try, the goals we set, the life we live.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” According to cognitive neuroscience, even our most debilitating fear or phobia is something we can learn to conquer.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.