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Backpacker Magazine – September 2008

Never Fear: Q&A with Barbara Rothbaum

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

How do I know if I need professional help?

If you’re so terrified you can’t even begin to expose yourself to your feared object, you have a full-blown phobia, not just a fear—and you’d benefit from seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist. “If you try [to expose yourself], and simpy can’t, then you should go to intervention,” says psychiatry professor Barbara Rothbaum.

Can’t I just take a Valium and be done with it?

Anti-anxiety meds can help you chill out short-term, but they won’t allow you to deal with the fear long-term—plus, the last thing you want to be is zoned out while on an exposed ridgeline or off-trail trek.

Are there any alternative forms of therapy?

“The gold standard for treatment is in vivo exposure therapy,” Anderson says, but virtual exposure through computer simulations can be a good alternative when real-life contact is too difficult or expensive, such as in a fear of flying. Other treatment methods are more questionable: Rothbaum notes that there’s no scientific data suggesting hypnosis is effective.

I’m scared of snakes. Would I get over it faster if I skipped all the steps and jumped straight to holding a bunch of snakes at once?

Maybe, but it’s not the best strategy. This method, called “flooding,” entails exposing yourself to an extreme situation right off the bat. While this approach can be as effective as gradual exposure (and is certainly more efficient), experts say it might not be retained as long and is very difficult to tolerate. Better to climb the ladder over time.

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Capt Tom Bunn LCSW
Apr 21, 2009

Dr. Barbara Rothbaum is an "operative" for Virtual Realty Exposure Therapy. Though VRET is a failure, she and others continue to benefit by promoting it as if it works.

When compared with a control group which simply sat on a parked plane an "thought about flying", VRET came up second best. People in the control group did better in the long term. But instead of saying it is a failure, they say - as Rothbaum does - VRET is an "alternative" to real treatment.

To see links to the research, see:


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