Behavioral Health

A practical guide to the management of phobias

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Psychotherapeutic interventions for phobias have shown substantial benefit. CBT is helpful, with the most efficacious technique being exposure therapy.5,6,8,11,12 CBT can begin during the initial primary care visit with the family physician educating the patient about phobias and available treatments.

Evidence indicates that CBT is helpful for phobias, with exposure therapy being the most efficacious technique.

With exposure therapy, patients are introduced to the source of anxiety over time, whereby they learn to manage the distress (TABLE 3). Even a single extended session of exposure treatment, to a maximum of 3 hours, can be effective.13 In contrast to research involving pharmacologic interventions, studies of psychotherapeutic interventions for treatment of social phobias have demonstrated sustained positive effects.11 Sustained effects from exposure therapy last for 6 months to 1 year and can even be extended with self-­directed exposure.5

Exposure therapy: A simplified example

Pharmacologic interventions—specifically selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors ­(SSRIs) and selective serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)—have been effective in treating social phobia and agoraphobia.6 However, treatment of specific phobias via pharmacologic interventions is not supported due to limited efficacy and few studies for ­SSRIs and SNRIs.5,6

Benzodiazepines, although effective in alleviating some phobic symptoms, are not recommended per current guidelines due to adverse effects and potential exacerbation of the phobic response once discontinued.5,6 This poor result with benzodiazepines may be due to the absence of simultaneous emotional exposure to the feared stimuli. Unfortunately, little research has been done on the long-term effects of pharmacologic intervention once the treatment has been discontinued.11 So, for medication, the question of how long treatment effect lasts after discontinuation remains unanswered.


Mr. S’s family physician diagnosed his condition as agoraphobia with panic attacks. He was prescribed sertraline for his panic attacks and referred for CBT with a psychologist. CBT focused on cognitive restructuring as well as gradual exposure where he would travel with increasing distances to various locations. After 10 months of treatment, Mr. S was able to overcome the agoraphobia and took an “awesome” vacation. He also reported a significant decrease in panic symptoms.

Scott A. Fields, PhD, 3200 MacCorkle Avenue Southeast, 5th Floor, Robert C. Byrd Clinical Teaching Center, Department of Family Medicine, Charleston, WV 25304;

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