Exposure therapy could cure arachnophobia

By Shayna Brouker • Published: August 29th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Does the mere sight of a spider send you screaming from a room? Does arachnophobia cause embarrassment when you lose your cool around the crawlers? There might be a simple but very scary solution to your fear of eight-legged insects: Exposure therapy. New research shows that just one encounter cured those with extreme arachnophobia and actually caused changes in their brains.

All it took to cure the spider-spooked patients was one two-hour session. Their mission: Touch the spider. Therapists explained that spiders, as with most creepy-crawlers, are often more afraid of humans than we are of them.

At the beginning, the participants showed all the signs of extreme anxiety: sweating, a racing heart and labored breathing. But they gradually approached the caged spiders, and some even held them without fear. Areas of the brain linked with fear still lit up, but six months later, activity decreased significantly. Could such extreme therapy work for other fears?

It depends on what spooks you. More than 19 million Americans suffer from phobias, which psychologists divide into three categories: agoraphobia, or a fear of public places; social phobias, an aversion to social situations; and specific phobia, an illogical terror of specific things or situations. Phobias tend to run in families. In fact, those with a family history of irrational fears are about three times more likely to have one than those without a family history.

Desensitization, a softer form of exposure therapy, involves talk therapy to change how the patient thinks about the feared thing. Over time, people can develop new ways to respond to the situations that trigger such terror. And it works for 90 percent of people who complete therapy.

So if you find yourself running at the sight of a spider, give exposure therapy a try. You might make an amigo out of arachnids.