05/02/2014 08:08 GMT | Updated 06/04/2014 06:59 BST

How to Overcome a 'Simple' Phobia Like Fear of Heights, Dogs or Enclosed Spaces

Are you scared of spiders? Dogs? Heights? If so, you are certainly not alone. Around 10 million people in the UK are thought to suffer from a 'simple' phobia (also known as a 'specific' phobia, because you are scared of one, specific thing, rather than suffering from more generalised anxiety). It's thought that certain fears - of snakes, say, or fast-moving creatures like spiders - are genetically imprinted on to the human psyche. Being wary of snakes was clearly a good idea for our ancestors but makes less sense if, like me, you live in a snake-free zone like north London.

These understandable, even common-sense fears only need treating when they become disproportionate, so you cannot even say the word 'spider' without feeling extreme anxiety. Or when your fear has a significantly negative impact on your life. An extreme fear of heights would make it difficult for you to work in a high-rise office building; a terror of dogs would make a trip to the park with your kids impossible, or something you could only manage with extreme discomfort.

The good news is that specific phobias are relatively easy to treat using cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT). Of course, as a cognitive therapist, I would say that, but we know from decades of research and clinical experience that CBT is particularly effective at treating phobias, while other approaches such as counselling are much less helpful for phobic problems.

If you go for a (relatively short) course of CBT to treat your phobia, you will first need to learn about the nature of anxiety - which is inextricably linked to the fight-or-flight response - and why avoidance, although a normal response to something we're scared of, only serves to maintain the problem.

Your therapist will then work with you to draw up an 'exposure hierarchy' - a list of perhaps 10 things in ascending order of difficulty for you to attempt, either with the therapist or as homework between sessions. So if you're scared of dogs, top of your hierarchy might be stroking a dog; bottom might be looking at pictures of dogs in a magazine. As you master each stage, your confidence grows - you learn that most dogs are not dangerous or scary, and your anxiety-provoking beliefs in your own vulnerability and the hazardous nature of dogs gradually weaken.

CBT is not a universal panacea - we can't treat everything, while some problems are treatable but take a lot of time and effort. But, happily, specific phobias are fairly easy to cure - so if you are struggling with a phobic problem, please do get some treatment. It could be life-changing.

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