Scientifically Blonde | Don’t let a paralyzing fear hold you back

By yourself or with some help, face your phobias sooner rather than later

· March 31, 2011, 4:42 am   ·  Updated March 31, 2011, 12:00 am

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We all dream about our futures. Yours might include a white picket fence, an eight-figure bank account or a heavily stamped passport. At the heart of mine is a stethoscope. In my dream future, I am Dr. Sally Bieber Engelhart.

But I’ve got one small problem that gets in the way of my daydreams. I faint at the sight of blood. And when I get a shot. And when I see needles. And when I talk too much about blood, shots or needles. (Okay, I’m getting woozy.)

Crap. So it’s less of a small problem and more of a debilitating phobia that has the potential to crush my hopes and dreams.

Junior year coming to an end was a huge wake-up call that going to medical school isn’t all that far off in my future. It’s becoming obvious that I’m going to have to do something soon to get over this irrational fear of blood and needles.

“The best treatment for specific phobia is exposure therapy,” explained Elna Yadin, a psychotherapist at Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “This means gradually going toward the thing that you are afraid of and getting desensitized to it.”

So why don’t people like me who are scared of needles just do the therapy and get desensitized to them? Asking me to make an appointment where I can expect to get jabbed over and over until I’ve extinguished my fears sounds like honest-to-god torture. Like, how about I just bury you alive until you’re not afraid of that anymore?

You can see that phobias can be a real problem. So I was pretty excited when I heard about a potential shortcut to overcome them. An interesting study from the University of Zurich found that supplementing exposure therapy with doses of cortisol, your body’s natural stress hormone, helps patients get over their fears much faster.

The finding might seem counterintuitive. How does giving people a stress hormone make phobia-sufferers stay calm when faced with their fears?

The idea is that phobias develop because people have bad memories and feelings associated with some stimulus — be that needles, dogs, heights or whatever. Cortisol is thought to blunt the recalling of fear memories and enhance the formation of new, positive corrective memories.

So it looks like science has done it again. There’s a pill we can take to minimize the uncomfortable experience of getting over an intense fear. I’m sure that everyone else out there with a phobia (public speaking? spiders? heights?) understands why I find the idea of a shortcut so appealing.

But Yadin was not so quick to jump on the cortisol pill-popping bandwagon. She stressed her feelings that “if you don’t need to take a substance, its better not to take it.” She explained that exposure therapy works quickly, so there’s no reason to add medication unless someone really can’t handle it. “We should reserve cortisol as an option for people who have a harder time.”

I mean, I know that I’m a little more liberal when it comes to using the medications we’ve developed to solve our problems, but I still really liked Yadin’s overall message. Be empowered and face your fears. “We all have the power to [do so] within us,” Yadin said.

Man, now it seems completely ridiculous that I’ve been carrying around this kind of baggage with me for the past decade. With graduation fast approaching and my entrance enrollment in medical school soon to follow (fingers crossed), it’s become all too obvious that now is the time to face my fears.

Whether you want to do it cold turkey or you’re tempted by this cortisol pill, if you’ve got a mental block, get over it. Now.

Sally Engelhart is a College junior from Toronto. Her e-mail address is engelhart@theDP.com. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.

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