Applied Behavior Analysis in the Treatment of Fears and Phobias

ABA for Treatment of Fears and Phobias

Americans are more afraid that at any other time in history, some data shows. In fact, the fear experienced after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor wasn’t as pronounced as that which permeates the culture today. An article in Time Magazine credits this increase in fear to a rising distrust in the ability of government to protect its citizens. The happenings of September 11th, 2001, showed that there is some validity in those fears. There are also fears that may not be rational, though, and those fears can paralyze people and keep them from living productive lives. Fears and phobias are often treated by psychologists using Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy, or ABA.

Defining ABA

Psychology Today magazine defines Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy this way: it is a “type of therapy that focuses on improving specific behaviors such as social skills, communication, reading and academics…it is effective for children and adults with psychological disorders in a variety of settings including schools, workplaces, homes and clinics…it can help manage some of the lifestyle challenges that accompany many mental and physical health conditions.”

Methods of Applied Behavioral Analysis Treatment in Phobia Treatment

The tools used by psychologists in ABA are varied. They include, among others, Exposure Therapy and Contact Desensitization Therapy. In the first method, people with phobias and fears are exposed to the cause of the problem and then shown that the consequences of the exposure are not as great as the sufferer expected them to be. It is commonly used in anxiety disorders such as PTSD. Exposure Therapy can also reduce obsessive thoughts that result from unfounded fears. For instance, a child who has experienced deprivation may hoard food even though he is in a safe and satisfying environment. Exposure Therapy can help the sufferers realize that though they don’t have a stash of food, their needs will be met. Contact Desensitization Therapy is similar, but in addition to discovering they can survive the event causing the fear, the client receives a positive stimulus when he confronts the fear. ABA helps people understand the triggers that result in negative behaviors. This is especially helpful in treating panic attacks. These attacks send many people to emergency rooms believing they are experiencing a heart attack. The symptoms are similar. People with panic attacks have an elevated heart rate, hyperventilation, sweating, choking and trembling. The consequences of the attacks are so disabling that, even though they might understand they are not having a life-threatening event, they will go to great lengths to keep from experiencing the attack. ABA techniques can help people with panic attacks identify the triggers which bring them on and cope with them. Another therapy that is a main component of Applied Behavioral Analysis is Behavior Activation. Originally developed for use in treating depressive thoughts, this technique works well with people who have phobias or fears. It helps them understand the negative behaviors associated with the triggers and then to substitute pleasurable thoughts and activities.

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Irrational Fear Treatment Example

In one published case, a child was afraid of crickets. This can be a crippling fear for a child because, since crickets are outside, the temptation is to stay inside. Using Applied Behavioral Analysis and the Graduated Exposure Therapy, the therapist first asked the boy to hold a jar of crickets. When he could do this task without anxiety, the therapist had him touch a cricket with his foot. Next, when the child had accomplished this task, the therapist asked him to close his eyes and stand in a room with crickets for 60 seconds. The next milestone was the ability of the child to handle a cricket, first with a piece of paper, then wearing a glove, then with his bare hand. Once the child accomplished this, he moved on to holding the cricket in his bare hand for 20 seconds. Finally, the boy was asked to allow a cricket to crawl on him. Though the treatment didn’t completely extinguish the fear, it allowed the child to keep his composure if he was in a room where a cricket happened to be. The boy did eventually conquer the phobia.

Challenges of ABA Therapy

Defeating an irrational fear may be difficult because the therapy must address the very real protective responses of the body to the fear. Applied Behavior Analysis says those responses are triggered in the autonomic nervous system and are intended to protect the person. Fears and phobias tell the body to expect pain or distress after an incident. When the person survives the event, the body interprets it as a successful intervention, even if the fear was of something that did not happen. Because of that interpretation, people with anxiety often go to great lengths to avoid confronting a situation that might prove their behavior to be non-productive. For instance, as in the previous paragraph, people afraid of insects might never venture out of doors. People need some fear to keep them safe. Most people are familiar with the “fight or flight” response that prompts the body into aggression or into flight, if aggression is not possible. That response, when it is triggered by an unreasonable or unfounded fear, can be destructive.

Summing Up

People are wise to be afraid of some things. Still, they can overcome that fear and we call that bravery. Other people have fears that are not born out of reason. Those fears are harder to surmount because imagination builds them higher than reason can climb. In those instances, sufferers often find themselves immobilized and unable to live normal and productive lives. The problem is exacerbated by the protective physical responses of the human body. Most therapists do not specialize in fears and phobias but encounter them while addressing another psychological issue. Mere talk therapy can not usually break through the physical and emotional barriers anxieties erect. In that case, Applied Behavioral Analysis Therapy can address the fear, helping the sufferer contact the trigger in a positive way to disarm it.

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