Can Monster Spiders Cure Arachnophobia?




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Don’t. Scroll. Down. OK… you can scroll down, but certainly not unwittingly. Some of the images are of terror-inducing, digitally enhanced monster spiders used in a study conducted by the University of Tasmania in a bid to help cure one of the most common phobias known to man, arachnophobia.

The Fear

With some research reporting a fear of spiders of up to 50% in women and 18% in men, reaching a pathological, phobic level in 13% of all women and 4% of all men during their lifetime, it is one of the most pervasive yet relatively irrational fears worldwide.

Yes. Spiders are fear-relevant. There IS a minute, less than 1% chance of death, even when the most poisonous spiders, like the Guinness World Record breaking Brazilian wandering spider or the notorious black widow, dig in their fangs and successfully inject their venomous toxins. They can kill. If you are extremely, extremely unlucky and in a high risk group that is.

For a little perspective, in the U.S. you are around five times more likely to be killed by lightening and over 300 times more likely to die from alcohol poisoning. Yet completely and utterly freaking out, losing the plot and screaming bloody murder while writhing around uncontrollably is not generally something we see too much of when a storm is a-brewin’ or someone breaks out a bottle of booze.

The Feardrop

If you are one of the many arachnophobes out there, don’t fret. The creators of the franken-spiders used in the study, led by Professor of Psychiatry, Kenneth Kirk, have not only been studiously pulling out therapeutically applicable findings from their research, they also provide free therapy in the form of an online trial of a fear reduction program called Feardrop. You can start to tackle your spider fear without even leaving your couch, and they plan to use the same system to treat other phobias in the near future.

There were three main aims in the team’s latest study, published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. The first was to test the effectiveness of Feardrop in the laboratory.

Feardrop presents images of spiders and allows the user to rate their anxiety as they go. In the experiment, each participant aimed to complete a hierarchy of eight stages, where the images got scarier and scarier as they went, and they were not allowed to pass on to the next stage unless they successfully lowered their level of anxiety, a “feardrop” if you will.

As lead researcher, Dr. Allison Matthews describes, Feardrop was highly successful:

“We found large reductions in questionnaire measures of phobic symptoms, but we also found large improvements on a behavioral avoidance task in which participants were asked to approach a real live spider. Importantly, this suggests that the treatment effects generalized to a real world situation. When we looked at the clinical significance of our findings, two-fifths (42%) of the real image group showed a clinically significant reduction in symptoms, according to very stringent criteria, with the remainder generally showing some improvement.”

Great news for two-fifths of our arachnophobic readers out there!

Moving onto the monster spiders, the second aim of the study was to see how increasing fear and disgust, through exposure to hyperreal spiders, affects symptom improvement.

However, contrary to expectancies, there were no overall differences in fear activation for the real and hyperreal images. Despite the hyperreal images were reportedly more scary and disgusting, both graphically mutated and regular spiders were equally as effective in the process of curing arachnophobia.

In fact, there was one difference. A greater number of participants couldn’t handle the monster spiders and quit the hyperreal image condition, and as Dr. Matthews suggests:

“It is possible that hyperreal images are not an acceptable treatment option for some people. There seems to be individual differences in how people will react to images of feared stimuli, and we don’t fully understand these differences yet. We do know that people with lower levels of fear are more likely to adhere to an exposure hierarchy which contains video clips rather than stationary spider images. So those with lower levels of fear may need more stimulation to benefit from the program.”

As only highly fearful arachnophobes were used in the study, future research may see a comeback of the monster spider, where it may have a more heroic role than regular old spiders in saving phobics with lower levels of fear, or that have already largely reduced more extreme levels of fear.

The third aim of the study was to relate their findings to emotional processing theory (EPT) – a unifying theory that attempts to explain the processes of and guide the use of exposure in the treatment of anxiety disorders. The theory suggests that activation of fear and habituation of the fear response, both within and between exposure stages, is crucial for successful treatment, although this has not always been reflected in research.

In support of EPT, Dr. Matthews reports that:

“We found that generalization of habituation between the first and last exposure stage was the best predictor of approaching a real spider in the future. This is relatively consistent with the concept of between-session habituation in EPT, and is also consistent with inhibitory learning perspectives, which place lots of emphasis on the resilience of new learning to different times and contexts.”

Basically, if you are an arachnophobe, the greater your reduction of fear is between online exposure sessions, the greater your fear extinction learning is, and in turn, the greater your fear-busting and courage-conjuring potential is when face to face with your nemesis, a real live spider.

At least where this study is concerned, having greater fear activation or greater fear reduction within an exposure stage are the moth-eaten aspects of EPT theory and are not predictors of therapeutic success, or indeed failure, as previously suspected.

The Research

Including the main study in question, there have already been 12 arachnophobia research articles published this year alone (summarized at the end of this article), with many practical applications that could maximize the efficiency of curing fearful phobics, and may even lead to the near extinction of arachnophobia. Here is a summary of some of those practical applications:

    • When progressing from images to real-life spiders, exposure treatment to real spiders in different locations and contexts can help generalize therapeutic effects to previously unexperienced spider-encounters and prevent the all too common renewal of fear after therapy.
    • For those that can’t even handle regular spider images, very brief exposure to images, where the images were flashed for 25-33 milliseconds (considered subliminal and consciously undetectable), induces a process of fear reduction without causing distress, allowing highly fearful and extreme arachnophobes to start treatment more gradually.
    • The stronger the behavioral avoidance displayed by arachnophobic mothers, the stronger the fear is in their children. If you are a parent, reducing your overt expressions of avoidance may lower the risk of fears being transmitted to children.
    • The broad-spectrum antibiotic drug, D-cycloserine, known as Seromycin®, with potential efficacy for the treatment of anxiety, phobias and addiction, may have therapeutic benefit for treating phobias in children. Although it did not improve cure rates it did enable children to better retain their fear extinction learning across different stimuli and contexts.
    • Trying to distract yourself by thinking of baseball, your in-laws naked or any other distraction technique might not be beneficial. In fact, counter intuitively, thinking of spiders during exposure to spider images actually decreased emotional and avoidance responses between exposure sessions (fear habituation) than when imagining fear-relieving distractions, which led to a complete return of fear 16 days later.
    • Stop expecting to find a spider in cupboard, drawer, bush or shoe! Irrational expectations that spiders are lurking in every corner in phobics is part of a neural web of irrationality, fear-focused attention and loss of self and emotional control in the brain. Therapeutic interventions should improve the phobics’ capacity to integrate other information, such as signals and expectations of safety that can counteract their fear, during distressing anticipations of spider confrontations.

The Cure

A recent meta-analysis comparing available therapies for phobias indicates that exposure therapy is the bees knees when it comes to curing arachnophobia. Trying out Feardrop is a great place to start to see where one’s fear is at, as well as to significantly reduce phobia symptoms (for about ~40% that complete the program).

When too scared to even deal with images, and even if not, seeking out a cognitive behavioral therapist is a good move to completely obliterate arachnophobia, or indeed any phobia. A therapist will help deconstruct and reconstruct some thinking patterns to allow easing into future exposure sessions.

Once the presence of spiders is juuust bearable, don’t pour any hard earned fear reduction down the drain, relish every single opportunity to keep the fear at bay… expose, expose, EXPOSE!

References

Aue T, Hoeppli ME, Piguet C, Hofstetter C, Rieger SW, & Vuilleumier P (2015). Brain systems underlying encounter expectancy bias in spider phobia. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience PMID: 25694215

Bandarian-Balooch S, Neumann DL, & Boschen MJ (2015). Exposure treatment in multiple contexts attenuates return of fear via renewal in high spider fearful individuals. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 47, 138-44 PMID: 25601294

Bartoszek G, & Winer ES (2015). Spider-fearful individuals hesitantly approach threat, whereas depressed individuals do not persistently approach reward. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 46, 1-7 PMID: 25164091

Byrne SP, Rapee RM, Richardson R, Malhi GS, Jones M, & Hudson JL (2015). D-CYCLOSERINE ENHANCES GENERALIZATION OF FEAR EXTINCTION IN CHILDREN. Depression and anxiety PMID: 25775435

Dethier V, Bruneau N, & Philippot P (2015). Attentional focus during exposure in spider phobia: the role of schematic versus non-schematic imagery. Behaviour research and therapy, 65, 86-92 PMID: 25588928

Lebowitz ER, Shic F, Campbell D, MacLeod J, & Silverman WK (2015). Avoidance moderates the association between mothers’ and children’s fears: findings from a novel motion-tracking behavioral assessment. Depression and anxiety, 32 (2), 91-8 PMID: 25424469

Leutgeb V, Sarlo M, Schöngassner F, & Schienle A (2015). Out of sight, but still in mind: electrocortical correlates of attentional capture in spider phobia as revealed by a ‘dot probe’ paradigm. Brain and cognition, 93, 26-34 PMID: 25500187

Matthews A, Naran N, & Kirkby KC (2015). Symbolic online exposure for spider fear: habituation of fear, disgust and physiological arousal and predictors of symptom improvement. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 47, 129-37 PMID: 25577731

Michalowski JM, Pané-Farré CA, Löw A, & Hamm AO (2015). Brain dynamics of visual attention during anticipation and encoding of threat- and safe-cues in spider-phobic individuals. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 25608985

Rinck M, Koene M, Telli S, Moerman-van den Brink W, Verhoeven B, & Becker ES (2015). The time course of location-avoidance learning in fear of spiders. Cognition & emotion, 1-14 PMID: 25707541

Shiban Y, Brütting J, Pauli P, & Mühlberger A (2015). Fear reactivation prior to exposure therapy: does it facilitate the effects of VR exposure in a randomized clinical sample? Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 46, 133-40 PMID: 25460259

Siegel P, & Gallagher KA (2015). Delaying in vivo exposure to a tarantula with very brief exposure to phobic stimuli. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 46, 182-8 PMID: 25460265

Wolitzky-Taylor KB, Horowitz JD, Powers MB, & Telch MJ (2008). Psychological approaches in the treatment of specific phobias: a meta-analysis. Clinical psychology review, 28 (6), 1021-37 PMID: 18410984

Image via Stuart Jenner / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor and a scientific consultant, writer and researcher in fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology and biophysical chemistry. She is also our newly appointed Digital and Social Media Manager. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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