Facing your fears

Everyone has something they are afraid of. Spiders are a common object of fear, as are flying, snakes and heights.

But when that fear causes almost overwhelming anxiety and a desire to avoid an encounter with the object or situation by any means, then it becomes a phobia.

Dr Victoria Galbraith is a counselling psychologist and has recently joined the University’s School of Applied Sciences. She explains that people often develop phobias early on in life by being exposed to a stimulus that they find frightening, and they always hold on to that fear.

“It could also be that a parent, sibling or friend has the same phobia and they learn that behaviour from them,” she explains.

“Sometimes people develop phobias due to something traumatic happening while they were doing the thing they are now afraid of. For example, if your father announced he was leaving the family home while you were eating your dinner, you may develop a phobia of the food you were eating at that time. You associate that particular object or activity with a traumatic experience.”

Extreme lengths 

People will go to extreme lengths to avoid the object or situation of fear. For example, a person with a phobia of lifts would not consider living on the 10th floor of a block of flats but may also turn down a job offer after realising they will have to use a lift to reach their office.

But while some phobias may seem irrational and even ‘silly’ to an outside observer, they can restrict a person’s whole existence.

“Phobias can really affect a person’s way, and quality, of life. Most of us have a fear of something and it doesn’t necessarily get in our way but for others it can be quite overwhelming.”

In her practice, Dr Galbraith specialises in psychological therapy and adult mental health, which ranges from the mild and moderate to the more severe mental health difficulties.

Conditions that Victoria works psychotherapeutically with include depression, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders and anxiety-related conditions such as panic and phobias.

Whilst there are a host of different psycho-therapeutic approaches available, she explains that there is a great deal of scientific evidence that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is an effective means of treating phobias, as it looks at the cycle of the thoughts affecting the feelings and how those feelings affect behaviour.

“People have a fear of something so they avoid it, and in psychological therapy, we try to break that cycle. This generally involves challenging the thought processes and the behaviour, and gradually exposing yourself to what you are afraid of,” Victoria continues.

“For a fear of flying, for example, it would be expensive to be taking flights as a means of treatment, so we often use imagery, where the person imagines themselves on a plane, taking off, in the air and landing or whatever is the worst part for them. You could also visit an airport, look at the different planes and perhaps even stand near a plane to cause anxiety.

“The treatment is in stages so you start with the things that are the least anxiety provoking and work up to those that are the most, and the client is encouraged to stay with the subject and ‘ride out’ the anxiety.

“Someone who is afraid of dogs may choose to avoid places where they may encounter a dog, such as a park, and even when a dog is on a lead they may cross the road to avoid it. The way to approach this is to create a ‘fear ladder’ from one to 10. One, might be looking at a picture of a dog. Four, could be staying on the same side of the road as a dog on a lead while 10 could be petting a dog.”

But people are not thrown in at the deep end and expected to deal with their fear unaided. They are shown relaxation techniques, such as breathing and visualisation, before they are placed in situations of anxiety. The client also needs to want to engage in the process and be motivated to change.

Active research

Dr Galbraith is an active researcher and is passionate about the de-stigmatisation of mental health. Alongside her practice work, her research specialisms include attitudes towards mental health and the stigma attached to it.

She has just completed a Masters in applied forensic psychology and has conducted research investigating the attitudes of police officers to their own mental health and their associated help-seeking behaviours. Dr Galbraith’s most recent area of interest is maternal mental health and ‘how to cope with little ones’.

She is also a popular media commentator, with interviews on Live with Gabby on Channel 5 offering tips on keeping new year’s resolutions and how to spot when someone is telling a lie. She was also the behind-the-scenes psychologist on Chris Moyles’ Face Your Fears week on BBC Radio 1 last year, when members of the breakfast show team had to tackle their phobias.

For Dr Galbraith, helping people deal with issues such as phobias is the reason she entered this challenging but fascinating profession. “I have always been interested in the way that people become who they are and also in the differences between people. The dynamics involved in the way that individuals and groups behave fascinate me.

“It is very rewarding, and for people to share their life stories with me is a privilege. We don’t really get that opportunity in day-to-day life, but as a psychologist a client has the chance to open up and be themselves. We can share their lives and hopefully help them to move on.”


Dr Victoria Galbraith’s top tips for dealing with phobias

  • Learn some relaxation techniques (eg. deep breathing).
  • Attempt to face your fear in a gradual way – create a fear ladder (eg. 1 – look at photo of dog; 10 – pet a dog).
  • Stay with the anxiety until it subsides – this way you will learn that it does subside!
  • Ask yourself ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’ and then ask yourself ‘how likely is that to happen?’
  • Keep trying. Be persistent!