Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/16/2006 4:17:33 PM ET 2006-10-16T20:17:33

They’re intense, irrational, sometimes even disabling. Whether it’s fear of flying, or driving over bridges, phobias can dominate people’s lives. And in our pet-loving society, a fear of dogs can pose a major challenge.

Even the sight of a friendly dog sends Lorraine Veronneau of Ontario, Calif., in the opposite direction or into tears.

“Years ago, I was at Buena Park Mall with my son, who was probably 2, and my mother-in-law. I saw a dog and ran to the car and locked myself in and then cried because I had left my son in the stroller. My mother-in-law was there, but I felt just worthless because I had done that,” she says.

Veronneau was bitten by a small dog when she was 6 or 7 years old, but even before that, she says, she was fearful of dogs.

“To me, big dogs looked like wolves, and little dogs are so jumpy. If I see a big dog, I’m terrified. Little dogs I avoid because they bark and I’m always afraid they’re going to nip,” she says.

Sometimes phobias develop after a bad experience with an animal or simply through lack of exposure to them, but often they originate as a type of panic disorder, for no apparent reason, says David Carbonell, author of "Panic Attacks Workbook." “This kind of fear can be really powerful.”

Changing your thinking
Phobias are built and maintained by magnifying fear with "trigger phrases" that induce a fearful state, says Linda Sapadin, a psychologist in Valley Stream, N.Y, and the author of "Master Your Fears: How To Triumph Over Your Worries and Get On With Your Life."

Trigger phrases might be “Cats are dangerous,” or “I can’t cope with a dog barking at me.” People may then intensify their reaction by thinking “I’m going to be attacked” or “I’m terrified.”

Sapadin’s goal is to help clients change the way they think. “Your words have a huge effect on how you think,” Sapadin says. “You need to move from fear words to calming words.”

Instead of thinking “I’m afraid of dogs” or “How can I get out of this?” she recommends sending a message that’s calming instead of fearful, such as “I’m frightened, but everybody tells me this is a sweet dog, so I really need to trust what they say.”

Carbonell starts by finding out what clients think might happen if they encounter a dog.

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“They’ll describe symptoms of powerful physical fear,” he says. “Their heart pounds, their mind races, they get sweaty, they find it hard to breathe."

Then Carbonell asks clients to talk about times where they had those feelings, but then nothing bad happened — such as when they encountered a dog and thing went smoothly.

"By reviewing history and asking a lot of questions, I’ll seek to create some room for doubt about how accurate their idea is of what would happen, and I’ll help the person develop some responses to the physical fear and the scary thoughts.”

Take deep breaths
Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are a part of this approach. Clients learn to take deep breaths and use let-go exercises to relax the entire body. One way to do this is to make a fist, hold it rigid for about five seconds, then let go.

“You will find a huge difference between the tightening and the relaxing,” Sapadin says. “If people do that in various parts of their body, particularly their shoulders and neck, they find it’s amazingly relaxing.”

Once a client has acquired techniques for dealing with fear and anxiety, Carbonell sets up a session with a dog.

“To have the experience of being able to calm themselves and tolerate the physical sensations and let them subside, it’s necessary to actually practice with a dog, and that’s where the real treatment comes from, from doing that in the presence of a dog — getting afraid and having the time to calm down,” he says.

Facing fear
The amount of time needed for therapy is surprisingly brief. One woman who feared abandoning her children if faced with a canine met with Carbonell for only eight sessions.

“It took seven sessions to help her make up her mind and see that this was the logical next step and that she had some steps to take [to deal with her fear],” he says.

The woman's husband worked with someone who brought a friendly dog to the sessions with Carbonell. The first 15 minutes were difficult, but the rest came more easily, he recalled.

"After an hour and a half, she was perfectly content to stay there with the dog while the husband gave me a ride to the train. As we were going out of the building, he turned to me with a funny look on his face and said ‘I can’t believe I’m leaving my wife my wife alone with a dog. I never thought I would be doing this.'”

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