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Two New Ways to Conquer Our Fears

counquering fear

A phobia is an irrational and excessive fear of someone or something. They affect about 10% of the US population and are one of the most common mental disorders. The prevailing school of thought for conquering fears is to face it head-on. However, two new research studies suggest other methods which may be a little easier to handle.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden conducted a study on 36 male participants. Because it is thought that phobias are learned, the volunteers were tested using unpleasant electrical stimulation while watching first a series of clips of faces and then two movie clips. One face in particular was associated with the electrical shock, so when that face was featured in the movie clip the participants acted fearful.

However, during one part of the experiment, the viewers watched another person view the target face, the fear response was lower. The theory is that if you want to conquer your fear of spiders, for instance, watch another person handle a spider and you will be less fearful with each exposure until eventually you may be able to handle the spider yourself.

Armita Golka, lead study author, says: "Information about what is dangerous and safe in our environment is often transferred from other individuals through social forms of learning. Our findings suggest that these social means of learning promote superior down-regulation of learned fear, as compared to the sole experiences of personal safety."

A second study, by researchers with the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, suggest that it may be possible to sleep away your fears.

Katherina Hauner and colleagues studied 15 participants who were taught to fear images using electrical shocks, similar to the above experiment. However, the shocks in this trial were accompanied by a recurrent odor, as it is thought that smells are especially linked with memories of emotions and feelings.

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The participants then took a nap. While they slept, the researchers reintroduced the odors, but without the shock. Over time, with repeated exposure, the fear response declined.

“Individual memories related to fearful events can be specifically targeted and changed during sleep,” says Hauner. “To my knowledge, this is the first [experiment] to show that emotional memories can be manipulated during sleep in humans.”

Hauner cautions that this technique still needs more testing, but one day could be added to exposure therapy, the most effective treatment for phobias.

Exposure involves having people engage in their feared experiences gradually until they learn to cope. However, some refuse exposure therapy, so having a component of exposure to occur during sleep could increase the likelihood that while they are awake they would be more open to therapy.

“[Exposure therapy] is extremely stressful, especially at the beginning,” Hauner says. “It’s very effective for specific phobias (but) it can be a very difficult process, so anything we can do to enhance it would be good.”

Per the National Institute of Mental Health, the top ten phobias are:

1. Fear of public speaking (Glossophobia)
2. Fear of death (Necrophobia)
3. Fear of spiders (Arachnophobia)
4. Fear of darkness (Achluophobia, Scotophobia, or Myctophobia)
5. Fear of heights (Acrophobia)
6. Fear of people or social situations (Sociophobia)
7. Fear of flying (Aerophobia)
8. Fear of confined spaces (Claustrophobia)
9. Fear of open spaces (Agoraphobia)
10. Fear of thunder and lightning (Brontophobia)

Journal References:
Golkar A, Selbing I, Flygare O, et al. Other People as Means to a Safe End Vicarious Extinction Blocks the Return of Learned Fear. Psychological Science. 2013.
Hauner KK, et al. Stimulus-specific enhancement of fear extinction during slow-wave sleep. Nature Neuroscience. 2013