Fear Factor

Everybody’s afraid of something. But for people struggling with phobias, that something can ruin their lives.

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As far back as she could remember, Dana Gurland loved dogs—watching them, looking at pictures of them, reading about different breeds. There was just one problem: She was terrified to be near them.

When she visited her grandparents, her father would carry her into the house and set her on the kitchen counter until their two small dogs could be locked away. Playdates at the homes of dog-owning friends were difficult. Trick-or-treating was out of the question. Going to the park, soccer practice, or even lunch at an outdoor restaurant became fearsome ordeals if a dog happened by.

Articulate and otherwise confident, the Bethesda girl was puzzled by her reaction, because she had never been bitten or chased by a dog.
“I couldn’t do things a lot of kids do, like walk down the street,” says Dana, now 11. “If I saw a dog, my heart would start racing, and I’d be shaking all over.”

In September 2010, before beginning fifth grade, Dana announced to her parents that she was ready to overcome her fear and get a dog.

“So we said sure, and found a dog and brought him home,” says Dana’s mother, Nicole Gurland. “We had the best of intentions, but we probably shouldn’t have taken the word of a 10-year-old.”

When Dana came home from school and met the new dog, a Pyrenean shepherd named Connor, he sensed her nervousness and snapped at her. She raced across the room and climbed to the top of the sofa, crying out in terror.

Even so, she insisted that they keep the dog, which was separated from her with an elaborate system of baby gates.

In October, the Gurlands took their daughter to The Ross Center for Anxiety & Related Disorders in Friendship Heights, where she received a diagnosis of “specific phobia”—an excessive fear that most commonly involves animals, insects, heights, water, closed-in places, air travel, bridges, highway driving and medical procedures.

Fifteen to 21 percent of women experience a phobia at some point in their lives (men are about half as likely to be phobic—except when it comes to fearing blood and injections, where the proportion of the sexes affected is about even). Seven is the average age of onset, and though many childhood fears fade with time, phobia that endures into adulthood “can lead to insomnia, depression and other related mental health issues,” says Dr. Beth Salcedo, medical director of the Ross Center.

Claustrophobia, acrophobia and fear of public speaking are the most common phobias treated by Ross Center therapists, according to Salcedo. Since its founding in 1991, the number of patients has grown annually, and now averages 150 per week. A program for children and adolescents was added in 2002. Salcedo says this doesn’t necessarily mean that anxiety in the D.C. area is increasing, but “there’s more awareness that treatment is both possible and highly effective.”

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