How to get over your fear of spiders

September 7, 2016 - 06:20

Seeing what you fear the most between short intervals can trick the brain into being less frightened.

An ordinary and harmless spider can give many people the creeps. (Photo: Shutterstock/NTB scanpix)

Some of us are terribly frightened by things that we really needn’t fear: ordinary spiders, heights ― even though we are not dangling from a cliff, or perhaps flying in a modern jetliner.

These fears can hinder us from sleeping outdoors, enjoying a magnificent view or travelling. Exposure therapy is a known method of treating phobias. Fears can be moderated by gradually exposing yourself to things that terrify you. You become more aware that these are not real large risks or dangers you need to be on the alert for. 

But this treatment is not as successful on everyone. Swedish researchers have tried a new approach to make it more effective.

The answer is to get even more exposed to your terrors, but the timing has to be right.

Bombarded with pictures

Researchers showed terrified test persons images of what frightened them the most. In this case, it was large, hairy spiders.

The participants were of both sexes, but most of them were women in their twenties. All of them had arachnophobia for most of their lives. But they allowed the scientists scare them two days in a row.

The exposure on day one involved viewing many pictures of spiders, in sequence. This isn’t easy for a person with the phobia. The more scared you are, the larger the spider appears to be. 

But before the participants saturated their brains in spider pics, they had to look at just two photos of spiders. These were warm-ups, to trigger their old fear before the treatment really started.

This was done either ten minutes or six hours before the intensive spider show began.

They found that the participants who saw the spider pictures right before the exposure began were less terrified of them the day afterwards.

Interrupting the memory

The researchers concluded that a mini-exposure before the massive spider show can be of help.

They think this is because the memory becomes unstable just before it gets stored in the brain once again. The reconsolidation of the old, scary memories gets disrupted. So the fear does not grab hold as strongly and gets a weaker footing. 

But this effect was not as evident when the exposure to spider pictures was done after a six-hour interval, instead of after ten minutes. By then, the old fears had a chance to regroup and re-arm, you might say, and get ready to launch out with full magnitude when a new series of spider images was shown.

Paid 25 cents per spider

Fears were studied by measuring brain activities and behaviour of the participants.

What is really going on in the brain when we are dumbstruck with terror?

One thing is an increase in activity in the amygdala. This is like the Grand Central Station of fear in the brain.

The participants were subjected to brain scans while they took in images of their eight-legged foes. High activity in the amygdala region of the brain was a sign of arachnophobia on code-red alert.

The test persons were also paid for pressing a button to view a picture of a spider. Was this worth it, when the reward for each image was the equivalent of something like a quarter US dollar? Not so much for the group that was still fully afraid. These persons were less willing to view the unpleasant pictures for such paltry pay than those whose fear was diminished by the repeated exposure after a ten-minute interval.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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