Arachnophobia cured within three hours

Six months after the treatment, the patients were able to touch or hold a tarantula in their bare hands six. Image: Justin Black/Shutterstock

Brain scans show long-term effects of therapy to reduce fears.

Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is among the most common phobias in the world, affecting about seven per cent of the population — and it can be quite challenging if you live in Australia, where there are about 1,600 species of spiders.

In its more severe state, the fear of spiders can dictate where someone chooses to live, go on vacation, work, or what sports and hobbies are enjoyed. Symptoms may include excessive sweating or clamminess, rapid breathing, rapid heartbeat, nausea and dizziness. But fear no more: researchers from Chicago’s Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have formulated an exposure therapy to assist arachnophobes in overcoming their fear.

Exposure therapy, which involves planned confrontation with the feared object, is among the most successful treatments for phobias and other anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The treatment is thought to train the brain to stop sending unwelcome ‘fight or flight’ fear signals.

According to Peter Hobbins, PhD student at the University of Sydney, who did not participate in this study, our fear of spiders is fairly recent. “We are often informed that such fears are “˜hardwired’ into humans, but the prevalence of arachnophobia appears to differ across cultures and throughout history. This variation can be attributed, at least in part, to ideas circulating in an individual’s culture as to which animals are “˜dangerous’, and why,” Hobbins says.

Some people dislike spiders because its bite could be dangerous, but “for many people, the loathing of animals apparently has little to do with a sense of danger: it may relate to imagining touching the cold, scaly skin of a snake, or watching the jerky, unpredictable motion of a spider,” Hobbins explains.

Twelve severely arachnophobes participated in the study. Prior to the therapy, they were shown images of spiders. The brain scannings showed that certain regions of the brain, the ones closely associated with fear response, lit up every time they saw an image.

“Before treatment, some of the participants wouldn’t walk on grass for fear of spiders or would stay out of their home or dorm room for days if they thought a spider was present,” said lead study author Katherina Hauner, postdoctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

During the exposure therapy, participants were taught about spiders, and gradually learnt to approach the creature. The researchers found that the participants who underwent just one session of therapy (three hours) experienced changes in the brain that resulted in them being able to hold a tarantula in their bare hands.

“Such fears can increase or abate over time,” Hobbins says. “Having spent the last few years reading about and looking at spiders has certainly made me much less arachnophobic than I once was!”

Source: Northwestern University

 

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