Why Overcoming Phobias Can Be So Daunting

Amid new data on erasing fear, one man's quest to quash his (odd) source of dread

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Let's get this out of the way right up front: I'm afraid of people eating. Some people are scared of snakes or flying or heights or other things that can actually be dangerous. I'm filled with overpowering, irrational dread by the sight or sound of another human being eating or drinking. It doesn't make any more sense to me than it does to you. But that's what a phobia is: a fear that has nothing to do with logic or common sense.

Weird as it sounds, phobias are not that unusual. According to a study published in 2008 by the National Institute of Mental Health, 8.7% of people in the U.S. over the age of 18 have a specific phobia of some kind or other. It doesn't take much to set mine off. A swig from a water bottle can do it, or someone chewing gum. Every morning when I get on the subway, I scan the passengers like an air marshal looking for terrorists. At any moment, somebody could whip out a bagel or a danish. I do well in restaurants, where there's a lot of ambient noise and distraction, but one-on-one meals are a minefield. And don't get me started on popcorn. When I go to a movie theater, every movie is a horror movie.

The treatment for a phobia like mine is simple and routine, and I avoided it for as long as humanly possible. That's because it involves deliberately, systematically exposing yourself to the thing you fear. It's part of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It's a very practical kind of therapy — it has no truck with mystical Freudian mumbo jumbo. CBT views your symptoms not as clues to the secrets locked in your tormented unconscious but as a set of learned behaviors and bad habits that you can be trained to give up. As far as CBT is concerned, my phobia was just a piece of bad neural wiring that needed troubleshooting.

That isn't a model of my brain that I feel especially comfortable with. I like to think of my brain as profound and mysterious, full of demons and neuroses and fascinating dreams that I can bore my co-workers with. But when you're fighting a phobia, CBT is your weapon of choice. It's reliable and well documented. Insurance companies love it. Often you can cure a phobia like mine in about 12 sessions.

Researchers at New York University have even gone beyond CBT. According to a study published in December in Nature, when a person's phobia gets activated, there's a period immediately afterward when the traumatic memory that the phobia is based on becomes vulnerable. During that time — which lasts about six hours — you can reshape the memory, rewrite it in a way that removes the fear.

The results of memory-reconsolidation experiments are impressive. The participants in the Nature study were first trained to fear a certain arbitrary stimulus — they were shown colored cards while receiving mild electric shocks — then reconditioned during the reconsolidation period. The fear went away. It was still gone when the participants were retested a year later.

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