Proffesor, Head Of the Department of Psychophysiology and Clinical Psychology At the Institute of Psychology, Greifswald University.
Everybody has experienced and knows feelings of fear and anxiety. Such feelings arise if we are confronted with a perceived threat or enter a context in which a potential threat might occur. In face of a such threats our brain prepares our body to activate a dynamic pattern of defensive action. These patterns are orchestrated by specialized neuronal networks in our brain. Fear and anxiety can turn into illness – a mental disorder, when we start to suffer from our anxiety and when the anxiety starts to dominate our life, so that we no longer do things that we previously enjoyed doing or avoid things that we need to do. Anxiety can become so strong that we even develop an anxiety to the feeling itself (we start to fear the symptoms of fear). What can be done, if such feelings start to become overwhelming and lead to impairments in our lives? The royal way – and that was already described by the German poet Goethe who suffered from severe height phobia – is the systematic exposure to the feared situation. But be cautious – this is not that easy. Often we loose our control and courage at the peak of our fear and escape from the situation when the fear is most intense. While the escape provides short relief the anxiety gets worse because the primitive old part of the brain learns that escape is a good thing to do and that it is even better to avoid such dangerous situations up front and stay on the safe side. The problem is that we almost never feel really safe anymore. Help can be provided here from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where affected individuals can learn under the guidance of an experienced therapist what to do when the fear is coming. The success rates of such therapies are perplexingly high. Findings from a Multi-Center Study will be presented how such therapies are organized and how effective they are. Moreover, some data will be presented showing what has to be learned during such exposure sessions to providing us with a better understanding of the mechanisms of change.