Since phobia can be developed through classical conditioning, many experts reason that the same conditioning techniques would be useful in helping people get over their phobia.
Phobics usually manage their fears by avoiding the objects that make them fearful. However, many psychologists maintain that avoidance merely magnifies the phobia. The task is therefore to expose the person to the feared object, to condition them to respond to the object in an appropriately non-fearful manner. In this manner, a person is forced to deal with his or her phobia.
The task of re-conditioning a response relies on gradually increasing exposure (McCallister et al. 1986). A person with a strong phobia to snakes, for example, can be shown simple line drawings of snakes. Over time, these drawings can then give way to more realistic photos, and even video presentations of crawling serpents. The key is to habituate the person to the presence of the stimulus, in a safe and non-threatening environment. Through habituation, a person could then start to develop a different conditioned response to the pictures of snakes.
Psychologists believe that phobics can become habituated to the object of their fear, just as one becomes habituated to background noises. When progress is made, a person can then be exposed to real snakes. While a healthy fear of poisonous snakes can still be justified, a person can be conditioned to respond without fear or phobia to non-poisonous ones.
Psychologists such as Ost (1989) have found exposure and habituation a very effective technique in helping people manage their phobia. Studies also found that some 80 to 90% of patients who undergo exposure and habituation learn to manage their phobia in the first session. Furthermore, very few patients experience a relapse of their phobic symptoms. Also, contrary to previous concerns with exposure therapy, former phobics who are treated through exposure do not find substitutes for the objects that they formerly feared.
There are many situations that could be difficult to re-create in the psychologist's office, such as agoraphobia. For these, technology and virtual-reality computer simulations provide an important tool for exposure. While not everyone responds to virtual reality, many phobics responded well to computer-simulated exposures (Rothbaum 1995). The point is to "flood" a person with the stimulus that elicits the conditioned response of fear, so a person would be habituated to the point of no longer noticing the stimulus.
Unfortunately, there are times when exposure and habituation are do not work as hoped.
There are other therapies, based on classical conditioning, that are designed to alter one's conditioned response to a feared stimulus. This technique is known as "counter-conditioning," and the objective is to condition a person to have a different response to the phobia-inducing stimulus.
Relaxation is often used as a counter-response. Since relaxation is incompatible with fear, the conditioned response of relaxing "counters" the conditioned phobic response (Weidemann and Kehoe 2003).
In cases where a subject could not even tolerate being in the presence of the phobic stimulus, a technique called "modeling" could also be effective. In this technique, a patient with arachnophobia could observe another person, the "model," encountering a spider and exhibiting the conditioned response of relaxation. Later, phobic patients could engage in "participant modeling," in order to model and develop their own appropriate response to the phobic stimulus (Weidemann and Kehoe 2003).
Biofeedback is another therapy often used in conjunction with all the techniques detailed above. Biofeedback allows trained professionals to monitor a patient's physical response, including pulse, breathing rate and blood pressure (Weidemann and Kehoe 2003).
This helps the therapist ensure that a patient is able to handle exposure to the stimulus. Because phobia elicit strong physical responses, it is therefore important that techniques such as exposure, counter-conditioning and modeling be undertaken with the aid of professional therapists.
In conclusion, while there are different therapy techniques designed to address phobia, their common thread is a recognition of the role played by classical conditioning. The phobic stimuli are not dangerous per se, but the patients have been conditioned to respond with fear. Exposure, habituation, flooding and modeling therefore seek to extinguish or at least alter a conditioned response of fear. Thus, unlike pharmacological means, conditioning-based therapies strive to get at the heart of the phobia, and in the process, provide a patient with relief.
Bouton, ME and Bolles, RC. 1979. "Role of conditioned contextual stimuli in reinstatement of extinguished fear." Journal of Experimental Psychology: 368 to 378,
McCallister DE and McCallister WR. 1994. "Extinction and reconditioning of classically conditioned fear before and after instrumental fear learning." Learning and Motivation 25: 339-367.
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McCallister WR et al. 1986. "Persistence of fear-reducing behavior." Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95: 365-372.
Ost, L.G. (1989). One-session treatment for specific phobias. Behavioral Research and Therapy, 27, 1-7. In Gray, P. (1994). Psychology, 2nd. ed. New York: Worth.
Rescorla, RA. 2001. "Experimental Extinction." RR Mowrer and SB Klein, eds. Handbook of Contemporary Learning Theories. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
Rothbaum, B.O., Hodges, L.F., Kooper, R., Opdyke, D., Williford, J.S., & North, M. (1995). Effectiveness of computer-generated (virtual…