03/03/2013 09:31 am ET

Positive Attitude Could Help People Conquer Phobias After Exposure Therapy

A positive attitude could be the ticket to overcoming your fears, according to a small new study in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy.

Researchers from Ohio State University found that people who had a negative attitude after undergoing exposure therapy for a phobia were more likely to have that phobia come back, compared with people who had more positive attitudes.

"In exposure therapy, people can learn some skills to control the negativity and fear that got automatically activated and be able to perform well despite that activation," study researcher Russell Fazio, a professor of psychology at the university, said in a statement. "But if that's all that happens, then the person may still very likely have a problem because there will be situations where their confidence will end up being eroded, they won't be able to manage their fear and they will have a failure experience."

The study included 40 people between ages 18 and 46, who had social anxiety disorder from public speaking. Their distress levels, heart rate and anxiety were monitored while giving a speech; this was done several times over the course of the study.

The study participants underwent exposure therapy for their phobia, which included having several minutes to come up with a five-minute speech they presented to a live audience, as well as a video camera. They did these speeches four times over the course of the therapy.

After the exposure therapy, all the study participants reported experiencing less fear associated with public speaking. However, a month after the therapy, nearly half of the study participants reported that their phobia had returned.

Researchers found that those who had a negative attitude were the ones whose phobia returned. They also had a higher heart rate and more anxiety tied to the public speaking a month later, compared with those whose phobias didn't return. Researchers noted that this objective measurement is important because self reports may not always be accurate (especially if the participants want to please their therapists).

Exposure therapy has been documented in research to help to quell intense phobias. Katherina K. Hauner, who is a post-doctoral fellow in neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, told HuffPost's Elizabeth Kuster that it's "based on slowly approaching the feared object or situation, in order to overcome the original fear":

For example, for exposure therapy with a dog phobia, we might start with just looking at a very small puppy from many feet away, and eventually work our way up to petting a very large dog. The steps of the therapy are usually catered to the individual, depending on where he or she is able to start.

Recently, a study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research showed that sleep could also aid the effectiveness of exposure therapy, potentially by promoting "retention and generalization of extinction learning," the Harvard Medical School and University of Massachusetts researchers wrote in the study.