Phobias are true challenges to overcome

A woman in Bethany Beach would like to see her son more often. He lives in Suburban Washington but a trip that takes most people three hours to drive takes him double the time. That is because his route takes him north on I-95 instead of east on Route 50. Her son has a fear of driving over the Bay Bridge. The official name is gephyrophobia.
Coastal Point • CHRISTINA WEAVER: Driving over the Bay Bridge is a real fear for the son of one Bethany Beach woman.Coastal Point • CHRISTINA WEAVER:
Driving over the Bay Bridge is a real fear for the son of one Bethany Beach woman.

Another in Bethany Beach says her daughter has “germophobia.” The woman explained, “She was always very neat and kept her room clean as a child, but when she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease her fear of dirt got out of control. She cleans any can or package that comes in from the grocery store before she puts it in her kitchen. Nobody is allowed in the house with shoes on. At Easter she puts the colored eggs in plastic bags so when the kids find them in the yard the eggs can be clean to come into the house. It’s difficult for everyone.”

A third woman has a daughter who, at age 3, had an intense reaction to getting a shot at the doctor’s office. And 25 years, later the fear persists. “The people at Beebe are wonderful about it,” she said. “They know her and now any time they need to draw blood or she needs a shot, they use a pediatric needle and that helps.”

Each of these women is describing someone who has a phobia. A phobia is defined on the Web site of the American Psychiatric Association as an irrationally fearful response to a danger that is either imagined or exaggerated. It reports that phobias are widespread throughout the population and that in any given year 7.8 percent of American adults have phobias.

Phobic reactions can range from mild discomfort and a feeling of foreboding to a full-blown panic attack with symptoms akin to the kind of shock associated with physiological trauma. Indeed people with claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces) have had panic attacks in crowded shopping centers and have been brought to the emergency room with suspected heart attacks.

It was specifically to help medical and helping professionals deal with medically related phobias and traumas that the Integrative Health department of Beebe Medical Center invited Boston’s Dr. Judith Swack to lecture at the hospital on Saturday, Feb. 4. Swack, who has a doctoral degree in biochemistry and immunology, has developed “a holistic psychotherapy system that reproducibly clears mental, emotional, physical and spiritual blocks to success.” Her system is called “Healing from the Body Level Up.”

Approximately 20 clergymen, social workers, nurses, massage therapists and a physician attended the eight-hour seminar. Some had personal experience with phobias. Swack spent much of the morning explaining the body’s bio-chemistry of phobic reactions. “It’s all to do with the body’s autonomic nervous system,” she said. “This is the part of the nervous system that responds automatically, outside the mind’s area of conscious thought, like reflex actions.”

Basically, a fear is triggered and the sensory system perceives danger. The hypothalamus in the mid-brain produces a neuro-hormone that signals the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adreno-cortico-trophic hormone) that, in turn, stimulates the adrenal glands at the top of each kidney to produce adrenalin, cortisol and endorphins. At that point, within a split second, the heart races, the mind focuses, the blood leaves the extremities to feed the major organs so the skin feels cold and clammy, and the response to pain is reduced.

The body is ready for “fight, flight, freeze or faint.” According to Swack, it takes about 20 minutes for the body to return to its normal level of balance or homeostasis.

Until recently, Swack said the old way of therapy for phobic reactions was to tell people to “tough it out, ignore it and move on.” Indeed many people with phobias never even seek help. “It’s embarrassing,” a participant confided. “I have an important job. I manage people. I am thought of as being ‘in control.’ What would they think of me if they knew I panic just at the thought of a little bug in my house?”

Fear of appearing foolish can in fact exacerbate the fear of the original trigger. It adds to what Swack calls the stack of phobic reactions. She indicated that anticipatory phobias, or future dread, are often more disabling than the original incident.

“The new way of treating phobias,” Swack said, “is to attend to the problem, understand the root cause, cure it and then move on.” To rapidly clear phobias, Swack uses a technique she calls “Natural Bio-Destressing.” It incorporates knowledge about the meridian system associated with acupuncture, as well as modern-day applied kinesiology and new-age “thought field” therapy.

Swack instructed participants to focus on the “first, worst or most recent” time they had personally experienced with fear or phobia. Then participants were guided in the use of a series of finger taps on 14 “energy” points around the face, chest and hands, as well as eye movements, humming and counting. One individual who suffers with claustrophobia and has had a panic attack while being enclosed in an MRI machine, described being surprised with the feeling of “lightness” and “freeing” after the practice session.

“Having a toolkit of practical techniques that clients can easily be taught to do for themselves is, in itself, freeing,” said Swack. She suggested when looking for a therapist to inquire if he or she is trained in the field of “energy psychology.”

In Sussex County, many therapists utilize the more conventional treatment approach known as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). It is a well-recognized modality that is covered by many insurance providers. Put plainly, CBT involves re-educating the mind about ways of thinking about things that produce negative reactions and learning new behaviors that result in a more comfortable way of living. Exact treatment is individualized for each patient and is often accompanied by stress reduction, progressive relaxation and behavioral rehearsal skills.

Dr. Penny Scott, a local Adlerian psychotherapist noted that Adlerians see people using “safeguarding behaviors” to protect themselves from fears, anxieties and phobias. She explained that the three threats to the self are: First, the most discouraging threat to the physical self is to be sick, hurt and even die; secondly, there is the social threat — we may not look good in the eyes of others, who may disapprove of us, humiliate us, or punish us. The last threat relates to the fear of loss of self-esteem, of not looking good in our own eyes.

Scott added that people adapt to the real or perceived threat, like traveling over the Bay Bridge, with safeguarding behaviors, and rely on learned compensatory behaviors, like taking a different route, that protect them from harm, alleviate anxiety and allow them to function with some degree of comfort. “Psychotherapy,” she said, “can help the patient accept and manage the fear/phobia so that it loses its power to create undue disorder in one’s life.”

The bottom line is that phobias are common, the symptoms are real, and that they are treatable.

For a copy of Beebe Medical Center’s Integrative Health Newsletter, along with the 2006 Calendar of Programs, call (302) 645-3528. To learn more about Dr. Judith Swack, go to her Web site at