White Plains Hospital’s Martin Seif, Ph.D., Shares Medical and Personal Insight to Coping with Anxiety

The Associate Director of WPH’s Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center opens up about the disorder that affects 18 percent of the country

Why did you become a clinical psychologist?
I went into the field trying to cure myself—I experienced a significant amount of anxiety growing up and in college and I wanted to figure out a way to overcome it. I didn’t know this then but, in retrospect, I would give myself the diagnosis of panic disorder, which is a technical term for being very, very anxious. 

How did your anxiety manifest itself?
I had phobias and there were many things I avoided, like heights, open space, certain tunnels, driving on some highways, and flying.

How prevalent are anxiety disorders?
Anxiety disorder is the single most common psychiatric disorder in the US, affecting 18 percent of the population. It includes panic disorder, OCD, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and a psychological term called ‘specific phobias,’ like fear of dogs, for example.

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What do you wish more people knew about anxiety disorders? 
That it’s a real and treatable problem related to how we are wired, not just someone being weepy. It tends to run in families and has an inherited or genetic component. 

What causes anxiety and phobias?
It’s a combination of a genetic, maturation, and some environmental factors. The old notion that a phobia represents some untoward or traumatic or upsetting event in earlier life has been virtually debunked. 

What are the most common fears your patients present? 
The vast majority involve some sort of transportation, like being afraid of elevators, driving on highways, bridges, flying, et cetera. Often they have to do with the possibility of escape being limited and the person not having control.

How do they describe their feelings?
The primary symptoms are lightheadedness and feeling dizzy, like you are going to faint. There’s a feeling of dread and a fear that you might be going crazy. 

What are the most unusual triggers you’ve seen?
I’ve seen people afraid of wind chimes, the words ‘Estée Lauder,’ and the letter ‘S.’ But fears like these that are very odd usually turn out to be unusual forms of OCD and not phobias.

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How do you help lessen a patient’s anxiety?
The active ingredient for overcoming anxiety is exposure. Anxiety is maintained by avoidance and, in order to overcome, one has to expose oneself in manageable steps to the triggers that provoke their anxiety. You might start by showing the patient a picture of what they are afraid of.

I understand that you used to be very afraid to fly. How did you overcome your fear?
I found a Fly Without Fear self-help group in Manhattan and took my first flight with them when I was 29. In those days, it was much easier to get gradual exposure; you could get on the shuttle without a ticket and sit for 20 minutes and then get off.

Tell us about the ‘Freedom to Fly’ program at Westchester County Airport you started 13 years ago.
We meet one evening a week for six weeks at the airport and, each time, we go through security and sit on a stationary plane. After the fifth session, we take a regular shuttle flight to Boston or DC. Ninety percent [of the participants] report a significant improvement, with the vast majority in the group able to take the flight—and that includes people who haven’t flown in 15 or 20 years. We don’t keep long-term statistics, but my guess is that 50 percent of the participants continue to fly regularly.

What’s the best part of your job?
Explaining to a person that there’s hope for getting over something that they find overwhelming. And I’m really blessed because the things I say to people every day are the things I need to hear to keep my recovery active.

Do you still get nervous when you fly?  
I am completely non-fearful and fly at least monthly. In fact, if it wasn’t such a pain in the ass to fly now, I’d say that I love it.  

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