NAMI says talk therapy is often effective in treating anxiety disorders such as phobias. The most common forms of talk therapy are behavioral therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy involves relaxation techniques and gradual exposure to the thing or situation that causes the anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy tries to help people figure out why they’re reacting as they are, and then change the thought patterns that lead to that reaction. APA says cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can desensitize patients to the triggers of anxiety, and help them to confront their fears.
Exposure to the feared situation can be actual or imagined. Recently, exposure can even be done through computer simulations. For example, APA says Virtual Reality Exposure (VRE) allows a user to be an active participant within a computer-generated three-dimensional virtual world. VRE can be useful is situations such as fear of flying or fear of heights.
Medications, such as anti-depressants, may also be used in cases where phobias are interfering with a person’s ability to function. Many people with anxiety disorders also benefit from joining a self-help group. The key is to realize you’re not alone; that phobias are a very real and a very common problem, and that help is available.
NIMH supports research into the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of anxiety disorders and other mental illnesses. Studies examine the genetic and environmental risks for major anxiety disorders, their course-both alone and when they occur along with other diseases such as depression-and their treatment. The ultimate goal is to be able to cure, and perhaps even to prevent, anxiety disorders.
Several parts of the brain (Read about the brain and its anatomy in “Brain/Mental Health/Nervous System”) are key actors in a highly dynamic interplay that gives rise to fear and anxiety. Using brain imaging technologies and neurochemical techniques, scientists are finding that a network of interacting structures is responsible for these emotions. Much research centers on the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep within the brain. The amygdala is believed to serve as a communications hub between the parts of the brain that process incoming sensory signals and the parts that interpret them. It can signal that a threat is present, and trigger a fear response or anxiety. It appears that emotional memories stored in the central part of the amygdala may play a role in disorders involving very distinct fears, like phobias, while different parts may be involved in other forms of anxiety.
Other research focuses on the hippocampus, another brain structure that is responsible for processing threatening or traumatic stimuli. The hippocampus plays a key role in the brain by helping to encode information into memories. Studies have shown that the hippocampus appears to be smaller in people who have undergone severe stress because of child abuse or military combat. This reduced size could help explain why individuals with PTSD have flashbacks, deficits in explicit memory, and fragmented memory for details of the traumatic event.
Also, research indicates that other brain parts called the basal ganglia and striatum are involved in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
By learning more about brain circuitry involved in fear and anxiety, scientists may be able to devise new and more specific treatments for anxiety disorders.