Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Phobias

Phi Atratus
  • Mar 16, 2022
  • 6 min read
man is tired of living with phobias

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Phobias

A phobia is defined as a type of anxiety disorder with its main characteristics being a strong, irrational fear of something that carries little or no actual danger. People with phobia tend to avoid objects or situations that scare them. When unable to avoid those, persons with a phobia may experience rapid heartbeat, panic, trembling, and shortness of breath.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 9.1% of adults, or more than 19 million people in the United States, had a specific phobia in the past year. That's a staggering number, and it only goes to show that phobias are a common anxiety disorder.

Living with a phobia is challenging and comes with a lot of limitations. A person with a phobia is unable to live their life freely because panic and fear are major obstacles. That said, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Phobia is manageable. The treatment approach relies on therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In this article, you’ll learn more about the role of cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias.

What Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological treatment based on the premise that mental disorders and psychological distress are influenced by cognitive factors. As a form of talk therapy, CBT helps people learn to identify negative thoughts and behaviors in order to change them. 

Basically, CBT helps people by changing the way they think and behave.

The roots of the cognitive behavioral therapy treatment method trace back to the early 20th century and the development of behavior therapy. However, CBT as a therapeutic approach gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s thanks to Aaron T. Beck, an American psychiatrist and father of cognitive behavioral therapy.

Do I Need Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Phobias?

While there are different types of phobias, most people experience symptoms such as:

  • Intense fear, anxiety, and panic when exposed to a feared object/situation or when thinking about them
  • Being powerless to control fears, despite realizing they are unreasonable or exaggerated
  • Trying your best to avoid the feared objects or situations, such as avoiding elevators and opting for the stairs instead
  • Experiencing physical symptoms, such as sweating and fast heartbeat, when exposed (or about to be) to a feared object/situation

Phobias do more than cause fear and anxiety – they affect a person’s quality of life. Being proactive is crucial for people with a phobia. You need to actively work on managing your fears. So whether you or someone you know have the above symptoms, CBT can help you. Cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias is a common approach that helps people break the unhealthy pattern of negative thoughts and behaviors.

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What Kind of Phobias Can Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Treatment Help With?

The greatest advantage of cognitive behavioral therapy treatment is its versatility; this approach aids the management of a wide range of mental health problems.

Phobia is one of them.

Evidence shows that CBT is an effective strategy for the management of phobia primarily because it enables clients to identify unrealistic expectations and replace them with more accurate interpretations. For instance, one session of CBT was found equally effective as exposure therapy for the treatment of phobia of small animals. Participants also described CBT as less intrusive.

A case study from the Industrial Psychiatry Journal found that a subject’s social phobia significantly improved after 17 sessions of CBT, even after a 6-month follow-up, which showed that the treatment success stood the test time. The subject was then able to live and function properly.

In a nutshell, CBT can work for people with different phobias. Some of the most common phobias include:

  • Fear of blood (hemophobia)
  • Fear of confined/crowded spaces (claustrophobia)
  • Fear of dogs (cynophobia)
  • Fear of falling (basophobia)
  • Fear of flying (aerophobia)
  • Fear of heights (acrophobia)
  • Fear of public speaking (glossophobia)
  • Fear of spiders (arachnophobia)

People can be afraid of just about anything, sometimes multiple things at once, and different people have different phobias. 

This field still requires a lot more research. What current evidence shows is that cognitive behavioral therapy does work for different types of phobias, and it can help you too.

How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Phobias Work?

To understand how cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias works, it's necessary to take a look at its definition. As a reminder, this therapy aims to help you identify unhealthy and negative patterns of feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. Once you identify them, the therapist helps you adopt positive changes. 


The reason is simple: negative thoughts or behaviors are detrimental to your mental health and functioning. This may seem easier said than done, but CBT is actually quite a simple strategy.

How does therapy help with phobias, exactly?

Your therapist will employ various methods to help you understand what types of behavior and thinking patterns exacerbate your phobia.

Someone with a phobia strongly believes the feared object or situation is dangerous. They truly believe their lives are in danger, and something would happen to them if exposed to the subject of their phobia.

This particular belief creates negative automatic thoughts (conscious or subconscious thoughts related to everyday events) that show up as soon as you encounter a feared subject/situation or even think about it. This explains why you may feel uncomfortable or frightened even when you’re only thinking about the subject of your phobia.

Negative automatic thoughts pave the way to the phobic behavioral reaction. By focusing on those thoughts, your phobia becomes worse and worse. That’s what the therapist helps you tackle. During the counseling sessions, your therapist will empower you to manage your fears by helping you change your way of thinking. This is done gradually to make the healthy pattern of thinking and behavior natural.

One session is not enough to manage phobia; multiple sessions are necessary. The number of therapy sessions depends on the severity of your phobia. It also helps to be open-minded and strongly determined to manage your problems.

Keep in mind that cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias includes more than regular sessions; you may also get homework. Your therapist may ask you to keep a journal, complete a thought-recording exercise, or do something else that can help you identify negative thoughts and work to correct them.

The exact approach to the management of phobias with CBT varies from one client to another. The therapist is the one who recommends the most suitable cognitive behavioral therapy techniques for your specific needs. In many cases, cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias includes some of the following components:

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring teaches you to identify counterproductive thought patterns and replace them with more realistic thoughts. As a result, your anxiety and avoidance may decrease. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy for fear of death aims to break the irrational thoughts about death in favor of a healthier thinking pattern.

Systematic exposure

Systematic exposure works by helping you plan regular contact with your feared objects/situation and repeatedly exposing you to them in a safe context until you experience little to no reaction to them. The exposure is performed gradually. 

For example, if you have arachnophobia, systematic exposure may include reading about spiders first, then looking at photos of spiders, then videos, and so on. Cognitive behavioral therapy for flying can use systematic exposure to help you gradually get used to the idea of flying without intense reactions. You don’t start by getting on a plane but gradually pave your way towards feeling able to do so.

Mindfulness training

Mindfulness training focuses on bringing your attention to the present. It is useful because people with a phobia are so caught in their thoughts that they can’t focus on the present at all. As a result, they don’t realize their fear is exaggerated and irrational.

What About Online Therapy?

The positive effect of cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias goes beyond the sessions on a therapist’s couch. Online therapy is equally beneficial. Current evidence shows that online therapy is equivalent to or even better than face-to-face counseling. 

What’s more, CBT in an online format has a wide range of advantages. Online therapy requires a stable internet connection, and that's it. You don't need to have to set up an appointment, drive to the therapist's office, sit in the waiting room, leave work, or anything like that. You can attend your therapy session from your office, car, home, or wherever you feel most comfortable.

Additionally, it’s a lot easier to find the best therapist this way because their location doesn’t matter. The whole process is easy to start; you just sign up and complete a mental health survey that helps match you with the most suitable therapist for your problems. Plus, you can be anonymous if that's what you prefer.


Phobias affect millions of people. Cognitive behavioral therapy has an important role in the treatment of phobia. It works by identifying negative patterns of behaviors and gradually replacing them with more positive ones. The therapist chooses the cognitive behavioral therapy techniques according to their client’s needs. 

Online counseling sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias are equally beneficial, and you can start with one today. Sign up on DoMental and start working on managing your phobia from the comfort of your home.

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