Got Anxiety? Take the Cure

Got Anxiety? Take the Cure by Barbara Neal VarmaAnxiety, phobias and frights - oh my! Dr. Fear to the rescue.

   Feeling a little anxious, are we? You and about 40 million others.

   Truth is, you're not alone, says Dr. Howard Liebgold, a.k.a. "Dr. Fear," a retired Kaiser rehabilitation specialist and former phobic whose own life-saving discovery of a cure has inspired him for the last 25 years to successfully calm thousands.

   "That's one of the three myths that keep phobic and obsessive compulsive patients paralyzed: that they're the only one in the entire world who feels this way or gets this frightened. Ptooey!" the Brooklyn-born Liebgold asserts. "The truth is 46 million Americans will suffer an anxiety disorder in their lifetime That translates to one in four adults and 13 percent of children."But the great news is all phobias and anxiety disorders are absolutely curable. Not 'recovering from' or 'managed' but curable."

   That's heady stuff for your average Joe who doesn't cotton to crossing bridges, or your average Josephine who no way is going to get on that plane - did you not see that jet go down in the Hudson river?

   "That's the Boo talking," Liebgold explains, referring to that frightened inner voice that forebodes in nauseating detail all sorts of catastrophic things certain to happen any heart-stopping moment now.

   "I tell those with a fear of flying: there were no fatalities on American commercial airplanes in 1998 and 2002. But in those same two years, 100,000 people were killed in traffic accidents, so you better stay home and commute from your computer. Only, during those same two years, 16,000 died in home accidents, so you'd better go for a walk. Only, 12,000 pedestrians were killed during that same time. So where's the safest place to be?"

   In a plane?

   "Right! Planes do crash but it's very rare, and you're not going to get enough time off work to sail across the ocean - and if you did, there'd be pirates, and passengers are falling off cruise ships nowadays, so what's left? If you want to live an expansive life, you have to accept the risk."

   A cogent message the lively and likable Liebgold often preaches in his "Phobease" workshops, in which participants learn to overcome their phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders. To help set the comfortable mood, Liebgold often slips out of his white coat and dons an orange puffy top hat with Boo! scribbled across its brim, plus his signature candy-apple-red "Dr. Fear" tie. Dr. Seuss, reputed to have had a cautious fear of children, would've been proud.

   "We want this assurance we'll be safe, but there are no guarantees," repeats Liebgold. "If you want to be totally safe, don't be born. There's a risk to living."

   A risk that for 31 years severely constricted Liebgold's life. It all started innocently enough with a Shakespeare class during his junior year at UCLA. The 21-year-old pre-med student walked into the classroom expecting to hear another "to be or not to be" quandary, only to find out he was to be claustrophobic.

   "Moments after I sat down my heart began to pound. I was breathing rapidly, my hands were sweaty and cold and I thought I was going to die."

   Looking back, he realizes he was under great pressure at the time with pre-med prep and other stressors, making the panic attack a twitching time bomb in his predetermined-to-be-anxious psyche.

   Liebgold discovered there is a genetic factor to phobias and anxiety disorders. What your mom and pop and their parents had, as far as fears and such go, you will probably have, too. Liebgold terms this a "genetic predisposition" to having that first internal earthquake that sets individuals with anxiety disorders on a crash course to acquiring acute fear and phobias. Like Liebgold, most folks don't understand what's happening to them the first, second or even one hundredth time they experience the body's perfect storm. They only know they'll do everything they can to avoid it ever happening again. Ever.

   "Fear is a useful emotion, anxiety is a restricting emotion. When the fear becomes restrictive of your expansive living, that becomes a phobia," explains Liebgold who was elected California Rehabilitation Physician of the Year in 1991, partly, he believes, because be never left the hospital except to go home, the only other place he felt comfortable.

   As phobics learn to avoid, so, too, they learn to live with less: less driving, less social interaction, less travel, less life. A painful lesson learned by Liebgold himself when his first-born son, a silently suffering agoraphobic (fear of unfamiliar surroundings), took his life at the tender age of 21, the same age Liebgold was when he experienced his first panic attack.

   The grieving father considered following in his son's footsteps, even acquiring a shotgun with the nonchalance of someone wanting to learn the sport of pistol-shooting. But then a miracle happened via late night TV.

   In his book, Freedom from Fear (Citadel Press), Liebgold writes, "I don't know whether you believe in God or a universal spirit, but my God, who because of my perverse sense of humor resembles Mel Brooks, said, 'Howie, you better watch the 10 o'clock news.'"

   The news featured a story about an innovative way to treat anxiety disorders that caught Liebgold's desperate attention. The next day he tracked down the program's counselors and signed up. After only four weeks or eight hours of instruction later, he was 95 percent better - "Only eight hours!" - he says, still marveling as if it were yesterday.

   It was actually 1984, and that first course, combined with other potent cognitive behavioral therapy strategies that Liebgold researched, became the keystone for Phobease, a 10-week program for both adults and children designed to teach participants to be confident, calm, and fear free through "experiential victories:" gradual, purposeful exposure to the things most feared.

   Count courageous, then, among the notable traits Liebgold lists that are common among the creative, sensitive individuals susceptible to phobias and obsessions.

   "I discovered the cure all along was to invite in the anxiety. What a turn-around thing it is to wake up and think, 'How can I scare myself today?'"
An effective formula but not an easy one, Liebgold concedes. He believes the program's group format greatly helps.

   "It's an incredible nurturing environment to be with people who have been in the same fight, who are also making dramatic changes in their lives. It adds to the healing experience."

   So does humor, which Liebgold faithfully provides in full measure to the legions seeking his time and teaching. Merry Gebing, a Phobease graduate says, "You can't squirt scare juice [adrenaline] when you're laughing."

   Gebing, whose life had spiraled down to days spent sleeping or crying her eyes out - "That's the only way I could escape" - says it's all about leaving your past at the always-open door.

   "We know you have the pain, but here's the path. It's like that saying: 'Get your head out of your - '"

   Quite.

   "Well, I can't say that in class so I like to say, 'Get your head out of your anxiety.'"

   A no-nonsense philosophy that is the law of the class by week three.

   Gebing says participants are given plenty of sympathy and empathy during the first few weeks of getting to know and trust each other, but after that, it's time to get to work.

   "We ask everyone to make a commitment to cure. If you're not willing to do the work, you're not going to be successful."

   Liebgold, whose Phobease treatment model has the thumbs up of the American Psychiatric Association, says that work comes in three stages. First is education: understanding the origin, physiology, and biochemistry of anxiety.

   "A panic attack is proof your body is functioning perfectly. You have told your brain you are in mortal danger and in pumps the adrenaline. How do you know if your body will be ready for mortal combat? Have a panic attack."

   Second is cognitive behavior therapy which teaches how to restructure and challenge those scary beliefs - in other words, tame the Boo; and third, experiential desensitization. Baby steps. Sneaking up on your fears by gradual, controlled exposure.

   Yvonne Bullock, a sufferer of post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of three violent assaults, spent her first Phobease class standing in the back of the room with her back against the wall lest someone sneak up from behind. Gradually, lulled each week by Liebgold's beguiling stories of cure and hope, Bullock moved ever further toward the front row and eventually, outside of class, to an esteemed seat on a grand jury.

   These days, Bullock and Gebing often calmly face a sea of strangers as two of "Dr. L.'s" cofacilitators, something they could not have imagined doing previously when caught in anxiety's sharp grip.

   Liebgold recently appeared on TV's The Doctors. His mission: help a male cancer patient who was claustrophobic go into a hyperbaric chamber as part of his post-radiation healing treatment. "I spent four hours talking to him," Liebgold says. "The next day, he was able to go into that chamber." Not just go in but relax and breathe easy during the procedure.

   Liebgold laughs. "They filmed me with the patient for four hours but I was on the show for about 34 seconds." But no worries. "At least I got a Doctors coffee mug."

   That and the satisfaction of helping people overcome their fears, calm their anxieties and, as thousands can testify, virtually save their lives. Liebgold wonders if he'd missed that fateful, frightening day at UCLA, would his life have been different?

   But then he thinks, nah, it was a stressful time, and there were trigger points all around him and his frayed genes. "I figure I probably had a week left at the most."

   He's also philosophical about the longevity of his plight. "Many people say God made me phobic for 31 years so I could teach people how to cure. That might be true - but couldn't he have done it in ten?"

   Yvonne Bullock and Merry Gebing are just glad God made this doctor a teacher, too. "I was contemplating suicide before being referred to Dr. L.," Gebing calmly recalls. "Now I'm working, I'm driving again…I have my life back. My story is the story of thousands."

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