Confronting Phobias: A HealthCentral Explainer
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Palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea, and chills – if you’ve ever had a panic attack from a personal phobia, you no doubt recognize these symptoms. They’re feelings you can’t explain and have a hard time defending when people around you say you should “suck it up” or “get over it.” Now a new study concludes that when people say you should face your fears, they’re giving you good advice.
What kind of phobias do people have?
Phobias are a type of anxiety disorder that can be broken down into three groups: social phobia , specific phobia, and agoraphobia. The term “social phobia” applies to fear and anxiety caused by exposure to particular social situations in which a person feels he or she is being judged. Common examples include fear of public speaking, public performance, eating with others, using public bathrooms, attending parties, and even signing a document before a witness.
A specific phobia is an irrational fear of a certain object or situation, such as spiders, heights, dust, storms, flying, needles, small spaces, bridges, dentists, and, believe it or not, asparagus.
Agoraphobia pertains to a person’s fear of open spaces; including crowds, busy stores, restaurants, and noisy gymnasiums. In more severe cases of agoraphobia, victims are afraid to leave their homes.
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So the results of a study regarding debilitating arachnophobia—fear of spiders—offers hope for successful treatments.
How did they do the study?
The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University launched the first study to examine immediate and long-term brain changes after phobia treatment. The researchers documented the brain’s ability to reorganize itself to reduce fear as a result of therapy. They worked with 12 adults who had severe arachnophobia, which in some cases prevented people from walking on grass for fear of coming in contact with a spider, avoiding their home for days if they suspected a spider was present, and even cause them to panic even if they just looked at photos of spiders.
Participants were first briefed on factual information about spiders so they would understand the irrationality of their fear. Next they were presented with a live caged tarantula and encouraged to approach the spider slowly by taking small steps until they were able to touch the outside of the cage. Once they accomplished this, they were asked to touch the tarantula in a series of gradual ways; first with a paint brush, then a glove, and eventually with their bare hands. A follow-up appointment was scheduled for six months later to see if they were still able to confront their fear.
What did the researchers find?
The slow introduction to the spider convinced the participants that their fears were indeed irrational. For instance, they experienced that the spider was soft and didn’t act aggressively or unpredictably. The gradual treatment calmed the areas of the brain associated with fear response by desensitizing the amygdala, insula, and cingulate cortex. Interestingly, the subjects who showed more activity in the areas of the brain responsible for visual perception when frightened by a spider were the least likely to continue feeling arachnophobia after therapy.
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So what’s the significance?
A single, two to three-hour session of exposure therapy proved to be effective for those who had a life-long debilitating fear of spiders. This could signal great potential for changing the neurological fear response of people with phobias. Specific phobias, such as arachnophobia, affect approximately 8.7 percent of adults in the U.S., with 21.9 percent of those being classified as severe. This short and highly effective treatment could save patients and medical facilities a lot of time, money, and resources by equipping people with the ability to conquer their fears. Not to mention that more spiders’ lives will be spared.
Related Article: Understanding the Symptoms of Phobias
Northwestern University. (2012, May 23). "Short 'Tarantula' Therapy Helps People With Spider Phobia." Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Hauner, K.K., Mineka, S., Voss, J.L., Paller, K.A., (March 28th, 2012). Exposure therapy triggers lasting reorganization of neural fear processing. Retrieved from
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2012, April 11).Medlineplus. Retrieved from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/phobias.html