Freaked out by spiders?
A new study shows that just one therapy session is enough to turn the phobia around.
Researchers from Northwestern University found that severely arachnophobic adults who underwent just one session of therapy experienced brain changes that resulted in them being able to hold a tarantula in their hands -- and the effect lasted six months after the therapy session.
"Before treatment, some of these participants wouldn't walk on grass for fear of spiders or would stay out of their home or dorm room for days if they thought a spider was present," study researcher Katherina Hauner, post-doctoral fellow in neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement.
"But after a two or three-hour treatment, they were able to walk right up and touch or hold a tarantula. And they could still touch it after six months," Hauner said.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included 12 adults who all had phobias of spiders.
At the beginning of the study, the study participants were afraid to even look at images of spiders. The researchers conducted fMRI brain scans on them, and found that when they did look at the images, the brain regions of the amygdala, insula and the cingulate cortex -- all linked with fear -- lit up.
The researchers also asked them to try to touch a tarantula -- or at least get as close to it as possible -- and found that, on average, people were only able to get 10 feet away from it.
Then, the study participants began therapy for their phobias. During these therapy sessions, they learned the truth about tarantulas -- that they are just trying to hide themselves, and that they aren't capable of jumping from their cages -- and also were taught to get closer and closer to the tarantula.
Eventually, the study participants were able to touch the outside of the terrarium that housed the tarantula, and then to touch the tarantula using a paintbrush and a glove. Eventually, they were able to actually hold it in their bare hands.
The researchers conducted fMRI brain scans on them at this point of the therapy, and found that activity was reduced in the fear-linked brain regions -- and this lasted even six months after the initial therapy.
Fear of spiders is considered a "specific phobia" -- similar to fears of snakes, flying and blood. "Specific phobias" are considered anxiety disorders; about 7 percent of all people have this kind of phobia, researchers reported.
Recently, a study in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders showed that people who do have a fear of spiders perceive the spider to be larger than it actually is -- which could actually make the phobia worse.
"When it comes to phobias, it's all about avoidance as a primary means of keeping oneself safe. As long as you avoid, you can't discover that you're wrong. And you're stuck," study researcher Michael Vasey, a psychology professor at Ohio State University, said in a statement. "So to the extent that perceiving spiders as bigger than they really are fosters fear and avoidance, it then potentially is part of this cycle that feeds the phobia that leads to its persistence."
Are you afraid of spiders? Were you able to get over that fear? Tell us how you did it in the comments!