Phobias: recalibrating your fear


While exposure therapy may help some people with phobias, confronting fear alone won’t always make it go away.

Researchers now suggest that people with phobias must alter memory-driven negative attitudes about feared objects in order to achieve lasting recovery.

Exposure therapy falls short

Psychology researchers at Ohio State University have determined that people who have negative attitudes about public speaking after exposure therapy are more likely to backslide a month later into their phobia of it than people with a less negative attitude. The fear returned even if exposure therapy was successful at the time it was administered.

While exposure therapy builds skills to confront the fear, it does not prevent the fear from occurring in the first place. Negative reactions are automatic, and exposure therapy does not address the powerful associations between feared object and negative reaction. Russell Fazio, professor of psychology at Ohio State and senior author of the study, explained:

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. 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.

Changing the automatic response is key

“The other thing treatment can do is actually change the likelihood that that negativity or fear is automatically activated when one is placed in that situation,” continued Fazio. “We argue that treatment will provide more persistent improvement if it succeeds in changing that attitude representation.

“Overall, we’d like to see if clinicians can get people to view success in therapy not as a limited experience, but instead as an opportunity to really learn something about themselves. To the extent that we promote that generalization, we’re going to promote attitude change.”

Phobias are common, affecting 9 percent of the American adult population, according to the National Institutes of Health. Phobias can be debilitating and dangerous if the sufferer is so paralyzed with fear that they cannot care for themselves. Exposure therapy combined with a recalibration of attitude toward a feared object may provide a more lasting coping strategy.

Source: Ohio State University, Behaviour Research and Therapy, MedicalNewsToday


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