Chapel Hill News

Local psychologist Reid Wilson honored for anxiety work

Reid Wilson
Reid Wilson courtesy Joanna Wilson Photography

When clinical psychologist Reid Wilson began studying anxiety disorders, he was struck by how little literature there was on treating them.

So Wilson, now the director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center of Durham and Chapel Hill and an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill, decided he would write a book about it.

Wilson says it was a combination of naivete and cockiness that led him to tackle the project, but the eventual result, “Don’t Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks,” published in 1986, would be a groundbreaking work.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America last month honored Wilson for a lifetime of service in treating anxiety disorders, awarding him the Jerilyn Ross Clinician Advocate Award at its annual conference in Chicago.

Wilson is only the second recipient of the award, which was first presented in 2011. Named in memory of the cofounder of the ADAA, it is the highest award given in the field of anxiety disorders.

“At 62, to be acknowledged for a career of service, that’s pretty moving to me,” Wilson said. “To look back and see that I did what I set out to do, that’s pretty moving.”

When Wilson was 16, he experienced a trauma related to impregnating his girlfriend at the time. A lack of access to information compounded the problem, and he decided he would dedicate his life to getting the word out about crisis pregnancy counseling.

During his college years at UNC-Chapel Hill, he began helping fellow students with the issue, culminating with the creation of the North Carolina Workshop on Problem Pregnancy his senior year.

“I just won’t stand for people not knowing” what they need to know, he said.

His 1991 book, “Stop Obsessing! How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions,” co-authored with Edna B. Foa, was the first book written for the general public describing in detail cognitive behavioral therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

At the time, OCD was widely considered untreatable.

“He has good news about methods that work to share in language that is easy to follow,” said Sally Winston, the only other recipient of the Jerilyn Ross award and the co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland.

His books have been translated into nine languages.

Also, Wilson started, the largest free self-help site for anxiety on the internet, with 1.6 unique visitors per year.

He has also dispensed knowledge in guest appearances on national TV shows such as “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” “Katie,” and “Hoarders.”

Born in Raleigh, Wilson was raised in Charlotte and attended UNC from 1969 to 1973, graduating with highest honors in sociology. He went on to earn a M.Ed. in counseling psychology from Antioch Graduate School and a Ph.D in clinical psychology from the Fielding Institute.

He began his clinical work in Cambridge, Mass., working with an established practice to get started, but soon moved back to North Carolina, drawn by the weather and family connections.

At first, Wilson worked with chronic pain cases, but he found himself drawn to media stories about phobias.

“I kind of stumbled upon phobia cases, and they just seemed interesting to me, and I happened to have an affinity for that," Wilson said.

He took a unique tack in helping sufferers. Instead of trying to talk them out of a specific phobia, he encourages them to take a larger view and change the way they think about themselves.

“It’s not about the symptoms but response to symptoms,” he said. “I teach people to go, ‘Give me your best shot.’ ”

For instance, he had a patient who was so afraid of blushing that she would constantly wear turtleneck sweaters. Her wedding day was approaching and she was deathly afraid she would blush.

Wilson helped her take the attitude, “If I blush, I blush. So what?”

Medication works for some people, Wilson said, but not for all. He wants sufferers to know there is another way.

He compares it to the problems he has had with his knee. He was told he needed surgery, but through exercise has been able to avoid it so far.

“He just connects to people,” Winston said. “One of the things he can do is talk ordinary language. He doesn’t engage in psychobabble.”

Annette Perot, who practiced with Wilson for 15 years before moving on to start her own practice four years ago, said she is struck by how inquisitive he is.

He is a voracious reader, Perot said, and quick to put what he learns from his reading into practice.

“I think that’s one of the reasons he’s so innovative is he’s so hardworking,” Perot said. “He’s constantly thinking about, ‘How do we improve?’ ”