People are often told they need to face their fears in order to overcome them. Exposure therapy forces those with specific phobias to do just that, aiming to reduce the fear and anxiety that their phobic stimuli produce. National Face Your Fears Day, which was on Oct. 13, 2015, is a time to explore different forms of exposure therapy and how they can treat individuals with specific phobias.
Flooding and desensitization are the two primary forms of exposure therapy performed on those facing phobias. The former is characterized by introducing the phobic stimulus all at once, immediately forcing the individual to come to terms with the item or situation that produces fear and anxiety. Desensitization is a more gradual process, exposing the individual to the stimulus over time and to varying degrees until the fear response is no longer generated. Exposure therapy must be done carefully, as it holds the potential to re-traumatize the individual and reinforce the phobia. For this reason, it is encouraged that people seek help from a mental health professional before attempting to undergo exposure therapy to overcome a phobia on their own.
A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Northwestern University suggests that exposure therapy can have positive long-term effects when implemented to treat specific phobias. The participants in the study had been diagnosed with arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, and engaged in a 2-hour session of exposure to a live tarantula. They first touched the tarantula with a paintbrush, then touched it while wearing a glove and eventually touched the large arachnid with their bare hands. This desensitization reduced the amount of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for controlling fear responses, immediately following the session. When given a brain scan six months later, it was found that these activity levels had remained relatively low, indicating the exposure therapy had lasting effects.
The success of exposure therapy in the study above suggests that specific phobias are highly treatable. By creating positive experiences with a phobic stimulus, the power the phobia holds is stripped away. Katherina Hauner, Ph.D., lead author of the study, explains, “It’s this idea that you slowly approach the thing you’re afraid of. They learned that the spider was predictable and controllable, and by that time, they feel like it’s not a spider anymore.” Attis Clopton, a New York man with decades of debilitating aquaphobia, was similarly able to overcome his fear of water through intensive swim lessons in a local pool with an instructor trained in exposure therapy.
Clopton and the participants in the Northwestern University study were able to overcome their specific phobias through exposure therapy. If you or a loved one is struggling with a debilitating phobia, help is available. Call the California Mental Health helpline today to learn more about phobias and other anxiety disorders and where to find help.