Sunday, February 26, 2012

Understanding, overcoming extreme fear of animals

(Published Feb. 24, PDI-Entertainment)
By Oliver M. Pulumbarit

“The outpouring we’ve received from the show is amazing,” enthused “My Extreme Animal Phobia” host Dr. Robin Zasio in a recent teleconference. “The show is the first of its kind, illustrating everyday people who are terrified of animals, insects, mammals, and so much so that it’s running their lives.”

Each hour-long episode of the Animal Planet show focuses on a variety of people suffering from very specific fears, which are subsequently addressed with a five-day, intensive “exposure therapy.” According to the clinical psychologist, it’s not always a successful process, but it has become helpful to many of the show’s viewers.

 “I think that a lot of people are living in silence because they’re embarrassed,” Zasio said. “Can phobias be cured? I think it’s a Catch-22, because somebody has to be very motivated to do the therapy, so I think it’s more dependent on two factors: One is you have to really be able to read your client and know how far to push them at any given moment. And two, if they’re motivated and they really want to overcome it, [and] as long as you have an expert therapist who knows how to do the treatment, they can be cured. But then again, there are individual differences that we always have to take into consideration.”

Among the serious cases featured on the show was a woman horrified by cats. “Just walking through a cat rescue was terrifying for her and then walking into another area that was similar to a cat shelter was very difficult,” Zasio recounted. “She ran out several times. I had to coax her back in. She’s had a lifelong fear.”

Years prior to exposure therapy, the host revealed that animal fears were dealt with differently. “Historically there was always this concept of talk therapy, that if you could talk yourself out of it or go into your childhood and resolve whatever is causing that fear, that you can overcome it,” she said. “But the bottom line is you can talk about your fear all day long. I could talk about skydiving all day long, but there’s no way I’m getting in that plane until I systematically confront it!”

Zasio, proud owner of two horses, a dog, six turtles, fish, two rats and a tarantula, added that reasons for fearing certain animals vary. “For some people, they can have trauma in their past; for some people they can be taught to be afraid. For instance, we worked with some people who had a family member who was afraid and so they learned to be afraid, so it’s kind of [like] nature versus nurture.”

The lack of information on some domesticated or wild beasts also contribute significantly to the development of animal phobias. “I think it’s a very big part,” she said. “That’s why I was so excited about this project, because it’s the first of its kind to air on national TV about specific animal phobias. You might be watching a newsreel and they might do a two-minute piece on people who are afraid of animals. But usually all they do is just show these people are afraid of animals and that’s it. This show is specifically targeting one group of people, and it’s really outlining the reality that there are many people out there suffering in silence and that there’s treatment.”

(“My Extreme Animal Phobia” airs Tuesdays, 11 p.m. and Saturdays, 4 p.m. on Animal Planet.)

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