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Overcoming One Phobia Might Ease Other Fears, Study Finds
  • Posted January 12, 2024

Overcoming One Phobia Might Ease Other Fears, Study Finds

Imagine easing a fear of heights by getting over a phobia of spiders.

That might sound odd, but it works, researchers report.

Folks who use exposure therapy to overcome one phobia can find themselves less afraid of other things, according to the results of a study published recently in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

It's very often the case that people prone to phobias often develop more than one, said lead researcher Iris Kodzaga, a doctoral student with Ruhr University Bochum's Department of Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience.

“Anxiety rarely comes alone,” Kodzaga said in a university news release. “Patients who suffer from one fear often subsequently develop another.”

Exposure therapy has proven to be the most effective treatment against phobias, researchers said. By confronting a fear-inducing situation under the supervision of a therapist, patients learn to overcome their fear.

However, it has been long assumed that a person with multiple fears would require multiple rounds of exposure therapy, with each round targeting a different phobia, Kodzaga noted.

To challenge that assumption, researchers performed exposure therapy treating a fear of spiders on 50 people who also had a fear of heights.

Prior to the therapy, participants answered questionnaires and performed tasks to quantify their phobias. For example, researchers noted how close the subjects dared approach a spider, and how far they could climb a high church tower.

People who underwent exposure therapy for spiders wound up experiencing an average 15% reduction in their fear of heights, results show.

It's not clear exactly why the effect of exposure therapy transferred from one fear to the other, Kodzaga said.

It might be because people gain more confidence as a result of conquering one powerful phobia, she noted.

“But perhaps there is also a common denominator between fear of spiders and fear of heights that's not obvious,” Kodzaga said. “We'll need to conduct follow-up studies to find out more.”

Nonetheless, this outcome “opens up new perspectives for the efficient treatment of phobias,” Kodzaga added.

“It could mean that we can rethink therapeutic approaches and possibly develop more universal methods [of treatment],” she added.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more about exposure therapy.

SOURCE: Ruhr University Bochum, news release, Jan. 10, 2024

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