In the United States, an estimated 12.5 percent of people have persistent phobias, ranging from creepy AF clowns or creepy crawlies of the arachnid variety. Of those people about 32.4 percent have sought treatment. Many treatments, however, are ineffective — the anxiety eventually returns when the individual is reminded of what makes them afraid.
But research published Thursday in the journal Current Biology argues that there is a way to make these fears manageable. The method works off the idea of exposure therapy — the practice of gradually exposing a subject to what provokes their fear until a new safe memory is formed. Researchers from Uppsala University argue that a way to make exposure therapy more effective is disrupting the re-saving of the new memory, which they call “reconsolidation.” They say that this is the first time that this method has been proven to actually reduce the fear of life-long phobias.
“It is striking that such a simple manipulation so clearly affects brain activity and behavior,” says study author Johannes Björkstrand in a press statement. “A simple modification of existing treatments could possibly improve effects. This would mean more people getting rid of their anxieties after treatment and fewer relapses.”
In the study, Björkstrand and his team exposed individuals with arachnophobia to spider pictures while measuring their brain activity in the amygdala. The amygdala, which plays a critical role in the emotional memory process, is connected to the onset and regulation of pathological fears.
That means that if you are afraid of spiders and you see this:
Your brain goes:
The researchers found that if they presented a “mini-exposure” to the arachnophobes 10 minutes before a more extensive exposure, there was a significant reduction in the amount of amygdala activity in the brain when they looked at a picture of a spider the following day. They think that this is because the memory of the spider was made unstable before exposure and then re-saved in a weakened form — meaning that fear wasn’t able to return as easily. Comparatively, the control group (who were also afraid of spiders) continued to be just as freaked out.
It’s good news for neurologists hoping to better understand the relationship between stimuli and pathological fear — and better news for people who want to be able to watch Charlotte’s Web without wanting to run the other way.