Beginner Skills

Never Fear: Q&A with Barbara Rothbaum

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.