Do spiders freak you out? Well, you aren’t the only one. Approximately 30 percent of the US population suffers from arachnophobia, or fear of spiders. The degree of severity varies, and most people do not generally seek help for their phobias. But what if there were a way to treat or even cure arachnophobia?
A new study by researchers at Uppsala University and Karolinska University published in Current Biology describes exposure therapy and shows how this technique could be used to treat arachnophobia. What’s more impressive is that this therapy can treat other anxiety disorders and phobias as well. Since 1 in 13 of people worldwide suffer from or have suffered from an anxiety disorder, this could prove to be very useful.
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When someone recalls something, they draw up a memory in their mind. At that point, the memory becomes unstable and alterable until it is reconsolidated or re-saved by the brain. Exposure therapy takes advantage of this and disrupts reconsolidation, attempting to weaken or erase the existing “fear” memory.
Exposure therapy is exactly what it sounds like—patients are gradually exposed to what they fear, until they overcome it. This treatment alters patients’ fear memories, which are triggered when patients encounter whatever they are afraid of and lead to the phobic reaction. After undergoing exposure therapy, old memories are replaced by “safe” memories, which are much less harmful.
How does this happen?
The experiment involved showing arachnophobics photographs of spiders, while measuring their brain activity. Activity was studied specifically in the amygdala, a part of the brain that controls fear and strong emotion. Participants received a brief 10-minute exposure, followed by a more lengthy exposure. Functional brain imaging revealed that the first exposure made the “fear” memory unstable, and the second altered it, reconsolidating it into a weakened form. The results were telling; the group that underwent exposure therapy displayed a decreased fear response the following day compared to the control group.
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However, it is possible that not everyone would benefit from this treatment, as it isn’t necessarily permanent. Old memories can potentially return later down the road, especially if they are very old and strong. Doubts concerning this treatment have been expressed in the past and have yet to be resolved, but this new study has, for the first time, proven the effectiveness of exposure therapy.
This form of treatment has the potential to help many suffering from anxiety disorders, and more research is currently being done to broaden its applicability.
Featured Image Source: spider by Johns Williams