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PHOBIC? TAKE A LONG LOOK AT FEARS AND OVERCOME THEM

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Are you afraid of heights? Do you cringe when you have to get into an elevator? Are you petrified around house pets?

It is estimated that millions of Americans - as many as 10 percent of the population - experience phobias, the need to avoid an object or situation because it provokes an extreme fearful reaction.Options are available to treat or ease this often distressing psychological condition, said Dr. Arthur Zitrin, a psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center.

"Many people with phobias are able to avoid the stressful object or situation," Zitrin said. "People can be most resourceful in adapting their routines and altering their behavior."

When exaggerated or irrational fears keep a person from functioning normally, however, professional assistance should be sought.

More than 100 phobias have been identified. Among the most common are fear of enclosed spaces, or claustrophobia; fear of traveling away from home, or agoraphobia; fear of heights, or acrophobia, and fear of various animals, especially cats, or ailurophobia.

"People may have a single phobia, but multiple phobias are more often the case," Zitrin observed.

Phobias are often associated with obsessive-compulsive symptoms. For example, an exaggerated fear of germs can lead a person to an obsessive washing of hands, clothing and objects.

The psychiatrist said the most successful treatment for phobias involves a technique called behavioral desensitization: a person is helped to confront the feared object or situation gradually and, little by little, is able to overcome the phobia.

For example, a person with claustrophobia may feel unable to ride in an elevator. Zitrin explained that desensitizing might consist of the person's first standing in a stationary elevator with some friends for several minutes, then riding up a floor with one friend, until after repeated trials the person is able to make the trip up and down alone.

The success rate of desensitizing therapy has been significant. "The majority of people with phobias have experienced improvement from this treatment," Zitrin said.

A useful adjunct is available in the form of audio tapes designed to aid in the desensitizing process. Such tapes exist for a number of specific phobias, including fear of flying.

Treatment with anxiety-reducing drugs such as lorazepam (Ativan and others) or antidepressants such as imipramine (Tofranil and others), in conjunction with various types of psychotherapy, may also be valuable.

Self-help books, which many people try before seeking professional help, can be useful by informing people that they are not alone, and that other people have the same problem.