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Dr Kerryn Phelps, Health Editor, Channel 9 'Today'

LIEBMANN: Arachnophobia is just one of many phobias. Others include a fear of small spaces, fear of heights, water, even germs. Well, to tell us how to overcome them, and what a phobia is, we're joined by our Health Editor, Doctor Kerryn Phelps. Good morning to you.

PHELPS: Good morning, Steve.

LIEBMANN: Well, what is a phobia? When does fear become phobia?

PHELPS: There are a number of reasons that you can identify when a phobia becomes so difficult for a person's life that they will need to have treatment for it. And a fear is just like "Oh, I'm afraid of that", and it could be quite realistic. You know, you might be afraid of being run down on a crossing, so you stop, and you look both ways, and that's rational. When it becomes irrational, that's when it becomes a phobia, and the fear can be so…

LIEBMANN: When the person says "I'm not leaving the house, and I'm not going shopping

PHELPS: "Because I might come up against the crossing, and I might have to cross the road", and so they just don't go out of the house. The fear is not only irrational, but it causes very intense symptoms, and the symptoms of phobia are like a panic attack. They're extremely anxious, they might feel as if they're choking, they'll feel that they have a rapid heart beat, sweating, they might feel dizzy or faint, they might feel like throwing up, they might have hot or cold flushes, shake, tremble, when they encounter the thing they are afraid about. And the person will also go to extreme measures to avoid the thing that they are afraid of.

LIEBMANN: Because we're talking about the most common form of anxiety disorder. I mean, that was something I didn't realise. Does it affect women more than men, or men more than women?

PHELPS: It affects men and women. It's said to be the most common psychiatric illness amongst women, and the second most common psychiatric illness amongst men over the age of 25, so we're really looking at something that affects a great number of people. And, of course, the amount that it affects your life will depend on how likely you are to encounter the thing you're afraid of. For example, if you're desperately afraid and fearful of sharks, it won't matter to you if you live in Alice Springs and never go to the coast.

LIEBMANN: Oh, really?

PHELPS: Well, you never encounter the thing about which you're afraid. However if you're afraid of heights, and you live in a high rise penthouse, then you're likely to be confronting your fear every day to the point where it will actually affect the way you're able to live. Some people have a phobia about running water. Now, that will affect their ability to shower, bathe, brush their teeth, have a drink of water from the tap. That can be very, very disabling.

LIEBMANN: Now, so we establish that the fear is, in fact, a phobia. The next step is how do you treat it? And I guess the first tendency or inclination is, "I can get on top of this myself, I can control this". Is that the way to go?

PHELPS: Some people can think their way through rationally but it's very difficult. Sometimes the phobia is very irrational because it's based on a fear of something completely different, or an anxiety about something completely different, and the phobia actually masks that underlying problem, or that underlying anxiety. But if you get a specific fear related to an event or area in your life, you can actually, with psychological help from a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist, actually talk your way through. Sometimes they use what they call exposure therapy where, in very small doses, you're approached by the thing you're afraid of. If it's spiders, it might be you start by looking at vision of spiders.

LIEBMANN: If it's public speaking? You know, a lot of people have a fear of public speaking. I mean, is it take ten deep breaths and walk out and face the audience?

PHELPS: Yes, quite often it might be. In that case you would gradually desensitise yourself to that. You might sit down and speak to two people at a time, then you might have three or four people. A lot of people will go along to public speaking training courses, which help people to simply cope, and to see that the sky is not going to fall in.

LIEBMANN: Perhaps a fear of flying, you could go out and…

PHELPS: Do a course to overcome your fear of flying, and this is all about understanding the process, going through the motions and knowing what you're dealing with, and gradually getting used to the sensations, the feelings, and seeing that it's not something that is going to...

LIEBMANN: So the message is, really, it can be controlled.

PHELPS: Yes.

LIEBMANN: Take the right steps, look for the right treatment.

PHELPS: Well this is right, and talk therapy, I think, is the best way to go about that. And avoiding sedatives. Avoiding getting drunk. Avoiding caffeine. These are the sorts of things people quite often use to cope with their anxiety.

LIEBMANN: Just don't bring a spider into the studio, or a snake, thank you very much. Don't bring either of them into the studio.

PHELPS: You've got a deal.

LIEBMANN: See you next week. Thanks, Kerryn.

Ends

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