Veterans coping with PTSD and children terrified at the idea of making friends are among the many people who turn to UCF psychology professor Deborah Beidel for help.

Beidel, who runs UCF RESTORES (RESearch and Treatment On Responses to Extreme Stressors), began working at UCF in 2007. The center treats children with anxiety disorders by pairing them with socially comfortable peers for outings to bowling alleys, restaurants and other places. Children often begin treatment not knowing how to make friends. They need to learn the social skills that most people take for granted.

Beidel also runs a program to help veterans overcome PTSD. She is actively looking for Central Florida veterans or active-duty military personnel who served in Afghanistan or Iraq to participate in a Department of Defense-funded clinical research program, which uses virtual reality and piped-in smells associated with their war experiences to help the veterans overcome PTSD. She also is looking for military families for a Department of Defense-funded study about how deployments impact service members’ families.

Beidel’s passion is to help people overcome their fears. Her expertise and commitment earned her a Pegasus Professor Award in 2013. The award is UCF’s top recognition for faculty excellence in teaching, service and learning.

How did you first get involved with helping our military personnel who have PTSD?

In the 1990s, I was at the Medical University of South Carolina working with my colleagues Dr. Samuel Turner and Dr. Christopher Frueh, who was at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.  We were talking about how no one was offering behavior therapy for Vietnam veterans with combat-related PTSD.  So we designed a study, tested it, made some modifications and then tested it again. We were pleased that we could offer a treatment that military personnel thought was effective.

What are some of the most common things you hear from a veteran coming to you for the first time?

The most common problems we hear about are sleep problems, nightmares and intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event.  In many cases, military personnel have not even shared their trauma with their family because of its horrific nature. Their families say that they are distant and withdrawn – but the warrior is not deliberately choosing to shut out the family – he or she just wants to spare them the traumatic nature of their experiences.

What are the biggest changes they notice when they finish treatment?

We see decreases in anxiety symptoms, decreases in anger, and increased socialization. Military personnel feel as if they have their lives back again.

What is the most misunderstood part of PTSD?

That someone never gets over their PTSD. The events that precipitate PTSD are by definition horrific and will likely never disappear completely. However, with proper treatment, the symptoms of PTSD can be decreased significantly, and people can get their lives back.  In our program, about 60 percent of people no longer have a diagnosis of PTSD after treatment.  I would encourage people not to give up.  There are good treatments available.

What impact do you hope to achieve with your newest study involving military families?

We are interested in the effects of repeated deployments on the family. We are including measures of stress as well as psychological disorders. Our study is the first to objectively assess stress by collecting samples of cortisol (a stress hormone in saliva) and by measuring sleep patterns. Second, our study assesses family resilience. We hope to provide a more robust understanding of family responses to deployment.

Of your many accomplishments, of which one are you most proud?

Being named a Pegasus Professor in April 2013.  To be recognized by the university was a very thrilling moment.

If you weren’t a psychology professor, what would be your career?

When I was a child, I wanted to be an archeologist – I really like discovering things. But I changed my mind because I’m not a big fan of getting down in the dirt.

Who has been your most important role model?

Both of my parents, but especially my mother. She never had the chance to go to college but she was determined that I would go.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was in high school, and she died a few years later from the disease. She taught me the importance of education and how to face challenges with courage, grace and dignity.

What has been your most rewarding experience working with children coping with social anxiety?

When 8-year-old Pete first walked into my office, he said “Dr. Beidel, all I want in the world is one friend.” He worked really hard to learn social skills and to conquer his fear of being around other children. Nine months later, he came back and told me that he had been voted the most popular kid at summer camp. He had this huge smile as he showed me his trophy and I tried to hide my tears (of joy).

Share something no one or very few people know about you.

I am a tap dancer and throughout my youth performed on Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., as a Tony Grant Star of Tomorrow and on the Philadelphia television program, “Chief Halftown and His Friends.” It was “the longest running local TV children’s show in the history of the world.”

If I know someone who is struggling with any anxiety disorder, what is the best way to help him or her?

It is important to know that help is available.  Anxiety is defined as an irrational fear – people are often aware that their fear is out of proportion – but what the head knows, the heart cannot understand.  Telling someone that “there is nothing to be afraid of” does not help.  The best way to help is to let them know that it is OK to ask for help – getting over a fear takes courage.