Dr Robin Zasio
Clinical Psychologist, Host of My Extreme Animal Phobia
Animal Planet chatted with Dr. Robin Zasio about My Extreme Animal Phobia, how she started helping people with anxieties, her own fears and more. Learn more about how animal phobias work, how they can be cured and about Dr. Zasio!
What motivated you to get into this field?
I got into this because it was by a fluke thing. My direction was in forensic psychology and at the time when I graduated from school, I needed to find an internship and there really wasn't much in Sacramento and I just kind of came by this internship at an OCD clinic. And two weeks later, I changed my entire path. Because I began to do the exposure therapy, which is obviously what we're doing with our people with animal phobias, they do the behavioral treatment and their lives literally just change so rapidly because as they begin to do things differently they begin to feel better, so for me, what was so empowering to get into this field was literally just seeing people's lives change so quickly.
Anyone in particular that motivated/inspired you?
It was the experience of working with the people and seeing how they were afraid of these things that didn't even exist but their lives were being controlled by it. And it was just so wonderful to help people overcome their fears. So it was really the patients that inspired me so much.
Why did you pursue the shows? How can the show help people who are watching?
A few reasons. One is it's the first show of its kind talking about this fear. We know that people are afraid, but there's never been extensive media to help promote awareness and education around the treatment for animal phobias and how real it is and the impact on people's lives. And I think why I was so excited about this show, was thinking about all the people we would help and all the opportunities we would be giving people that otherwise they would never have. I mean, you know as well as I the cost involved in not just doing a show, just trying to pay for a therapist and how much it would cost for all the hours of therapy that they got. So, thinking that we were giving people opportunities that they would never otherwise have, and then being able to promote it via media to be able to say "Hey, look, this is something that's real. There are a lot of people out there who are suffering, this is what the treatment looks like and it works." And for those people who are out there suffering too, to see that "Oh my gosh, I don't need to be ashamed and embarrassed and there is treatment."
Can you explain the difference between having a fear of something and having a phobia? What signs can people look for?
Basically, when someone has what would be diagnosed as a phobia, which is an actual diagnosis, the main criteria that we look at is that their lives have been impacted in some way. Whether it be personally, educationally, vocationally, whatever it is, that there has to be a level that they're being impacted. You know, people can have fears, but if it doesn't, you know, alter your life, alter the lives of those that you love, and you're doing what you want to do, when you want to do it, yeah, all of us can be fearful of things, but as long as it doesn't impact us, then it doesn't go to that level where they're phobic and they're going to need clinical therapy.
Are there symptoms?
I would say that altering the way you live your life would be the main thing. Avoidance, which is a form of a compulsion - and when we're dealing with anxiety (compulsions in the clinical world are designed to relieve anxiety, so they do things to make themselves feel better). So the two primary things we would see in animal phobias, would one, be avoidance. Avoiding places where they fear they're going to come in contact with their feared animal. And the second thing is reassurance or reassurance behaviors that they ask their loved ones to do. For example, asking, "Can you open the door and make sure there's no spiders?" You know, "Can you walk outside and make sure before I walk outside that there's no dogs around?" What really happens is that it becomes very much a family thing because they are altering their lives and, you know, it gets kind of old with the family. They want to go and do what they want to do. And when they can't do what they want to do with their loved ones because they're afraid they're going to come in contact with their feared animal, it becomes very tough.
How is treating someone with an animal phobia different or the same as treating something with another anxiety-driven disorder?
It's different in the sense that obviously the exposures would be different. Otherwise, it's the same, because basically you're exposing the triggers associated with their fear, and the idea is that they're going to test out their fear to see if it's going to happen. So if you look at hoarding, the idea is that they're going to test out their fear when they throw something away. The fear is that they're ultimately going to regret it for the rest of their lives. They can never get it back and they're going to be eternally anxious. Well, that's not going to happen, but they'll never know til they throw it out. With animal phobias, it's basically the same thing. You fear this dog is going to smell you, bite you, eat you, kill you, whatever it is. And the only way that you can discover otherwise is by confronting it and testing it out. And, you know, I talk to people and there's some footage on it, but it's sort of like looking at a really nice car on the outside, but the engine needs work. That's kind of what we're doing. If I could take their brain out, I would, and I could just leave it in the office, work on it and send it back to them, but obviously it doesn't work that way. So we have to go through the person, so that the anxiety center can see that there's no danger. And when it sees it, it then it begins to back off and stops sending signals to the sympathetic nervous system which keeps telling them to run, run, run and of course in an anxiety, it's a flight response.
What are some of the more interesting cases you've worked on?
Typically they are kind of the common household animals or insects, you know, I've certainly never had somebody come to me and say they're afraid of a giraffe or rhinoceros. But, I think interestingly enough, one of the most fascinating cases would be Jackie who was afraid of butterflies. And I get why she's afraid - she had trauma as a child. The butterfly flew in her shirt, she couldn't get it out, she thought it was a wasp, she was freaking out. When she came to find it was a butterfly, she had this fear that it was going to happen again, because in that moment it was very frightening for her. So, I think because butterflies are so beautiful or viewed by most people as being beautiful, and the fact that she saw them as ugly and repulsive and disgusting, I think that the word to describe it is really just fascinating, because it's just not the way that most of society sees them.
I think also, just going back to interesting cases, one of the patient's is basically a performer, where he does very bizarre things - he eats glass, eats plastic - he shoots darts at his girlfriend, I mean, he sticks nails in his skin, it's just weird. And here's a guy who's not fearful of anything except cockroaches. I think he lives in New York City, so certainly it's not uncommon that he would see cockroaches, and he was really terrified. So, I think that was kind of another interesting case with respect to someone who could do these really extreme things that most people couldn't do, but yet, he was afraid of cockroaches.
Has there been one case that has been the hardest to deal with? Took a lot of time to work through it?
Yeah, I mean, definitely in my practice it doesn't typically go this quickly because we're not doing the bootcamp style. So, you know, I definitely have cases that would take sometimes longer than others. I wouldn't say that there was anything super extreme. I mean, that's what's interesting about doing a show because you do get some of those more extreme cases. I would say one of the more difficult ones [on the show] was Sandra who was afraid of cats and could barely, barely, barely touch a cat at the end of treatment, which was the only person, everybody else was able to confront their fear.
What sort of events can lead to someone experiencing a severe animal phobia?
A couple things. Number One is just your general chemistry. You know, I tell people my example that right now if you gave me a ticket to jump out of a plane, it's not gonna happen. I'm not going to skydive, I have no interest in skydiving. That's my brain chemistry. I couldn't do that and when I would tell the people with animal phobias, they would say, "I could totally do that! I've done that before it's a blast." I'm like, "What?" I don't get that. And you know, that's just brain chemistry. It's chemical activity in the brain, or genetics. You can have a family history of some type of anxiety disorder and for some people it would manifest in an animal phobia. For other people, they could be taught to be afraid, and that is the case with a couple of our participants, is that they were brought up in an environment where they were taught to be afraid and that's all that they know. And then, the last piece would be some type of traumatic event that triggered the fear.
Have you ever dealt with anyone who had multiple animal phobias?
No, not really. That's not super common, at least I should say not in my experience, it might be that they come in for a fear of cockroaches and they really don't like cats very much, but they can tolerate them, but they don't really like them. Typically, there's kind of one pronounced phobia.
What is exposure therapy and how does exposure therapy work?
Exposure therapy is a behavioral treatment that is designed to help people identify the triggers associated with their fear and to very systematically go after them by creating a hierarchy. And so we start with the lower level triggers, once they get de-sensitized to those they can move to the next, the next and so forth. So basically, what's happening when we're dealing with fear is that the body is giving a signal that there's danger. And if a person responds to it, then the fear continues to grow. What we're saying is that we think your perceived fear of threat is far greater than the actual threat. So, the only way that you can, you know, experience this is to start confronting those triggers. And again, we call it a systematic desensitization and just over time, what happens, is they keep working closer to their, in this case, fear of an animal, pretty soon the brain learns, by testing out their fear, that there's nothing to be afraid of. Now, is it possible a dog can bite you? Yes. Is it possible a cat can bite you? Yes. Is it possible someone can be swarmed by thousands and thousands and thousands of butterflies? Yes. But again, the perceived threat is not as great as the actual risk.
What is one thing you took away from this season?
I think what I took away is that, you know, and I have this in my practice too, so it's not just this season, many people, when they're fearful of something, they can't envision ever getting over it. And the relationship that I have with my patients is so important because, the thing, and if we end up making shirts, the thing I want the T-shirts to say is "Trust the process" because so many people thought I was a complete nutjob, that the things I was doing were crazy. But all of them, at the end, they went "Oh, I get it. I get it now. I didn't see it in the moment, but I get it now." So, you know, what I took away was that so many people get these ideas in their head about what they can and cannot do, and that my job is to help them trust the process, guide them on the road, and in the end, if they can do that, they're going to overcome their fear. And I'd say that people are a lot stronger than they realize, it's just that when they get scared they want to back off and avoid. But people are very, very - not resilient, because that's not the word - but that people are a lot stronger than they think they are.
When should people seek out treatment for their phobias? If they don't have access to resources like yours, how can they get help?
If they don't have access to any resources or a specialist who can do the behavior therapy, what they can do is just basically make a random list of all the triggers. Words that bother them, sounds that bother them, pictures that bother them, TV shows that bother them, movies that bother them, and places that bother them. And what they can do is rate those triggers on a scale of 0 to 10, and they're going to start with the least anxiety-producing triggers, which would obviously be the 1s, and what they're going to do is come in contact with that trigger until it gets to a zero. So, if it's like growls for a dog, then they'll put that on a notecard and if they identify it as a one, they're going to sit and stare at it until it becomes a zero. Then they're going to go to the next word and keep working their way up the hierarchy list.
Do you have any animal phobias?
I do not have any animal phobias. In fact, you know, when you asked about why I did this show, I forgot to mention that I love animals. So the more people that I can help overcome their animal phobia and actually get pleasure out of their feared animals, it's just so exciting because I think animals do really offer us so much and contribute so much to our lives and our happiness. But no, I don't. If I was out in the wild, would I pick up a tarantula? No, but I can reach my hand into a tank and pick up a tarantula. I mean, do I get pleasure from it? No, but I can do it. And the bottom line is that when I sign up to ask somebody to confront their fears, whether it be touching a doorknob and eating with your hands without washing or picking up a snake, I can't ask my patients to do anything I would not be willing to do.