Fear or phobia? How the ‘spooky season’ can affect people

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INDIANAPOLIS — With a week to go until Halloween, we are in peak “spooky season.”

Many of us are indulging in annual Halloween activities: watching scary movies, going to haunted houses, decorating our homes in creepy décor. While for many, it’s all in the name of fun, for some people it can be a trigger for their phobias.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 12.5% of U.S. adults experience specific phobia at some time in their lives. A specific phobia is defined as “an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Although adults with phobias may realize that these fears are irrational, even thinking about facing the feared object or situation brings on severe anxiety symptoms.”

Some common phobias include, spiders, snakes, needles and the dark. There are even phobias of skeletons and Halloween itself.

“We know that if you don’t get treated when you were younger it tends to persist through adulthood,” said Dr. Hillary Blake, an IU Health clinical psychologist.

Blake says most phobias are generally formed before the age of 10 but tend to taper off in adulthood. However, if not addressed, phobias can be crippling for adults.

The good news is phobias are treatable through what’s known as exposure therapy.

“We generally have them make a list of things that are least fearful to the most fearful. So, for example, looking at a picture of a spider, or pretending to imagine themselves holding a spider, looking at a toy spider, whatever it may be. So, they gradually move up from the least scary thing to the scariest thing. And then you have them do their exposure until they’re no longer afraid of it and then you move up to the next thing on the ladder,” Blake said.

Blake says it can generally take about 12 weeks to do exposure therapy, though she admits there can always be setbacks. She adds that you’re essentially retraining your brain, which means working at it every day is important.

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