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Doctors May Have Found a One-Step Cure for Phobias

During tests, the treatment made sufferers of arachnophobia way less scared of spiders than those given a placebo.

Some people are afraid of these. Image by Flickr user Jannis

Aulophobia is the word that means 'phobia of flutes'. It's pretty funny, but it's also pretty bad that in order for the word to have been invented, someone out there is suffering from a fear of flutes so intense that it actually gets in the way of their life. Anyone who suffers from a real-life phobia, as opposed to just a 'fear' will tell you how although their fear may not make any sense, they feel powerless to stop it. Phobias disrupt people's daily routines, reduce their self esteem, limit their work efficiency and can even ruin relationships, because the people who experience them will usually do anything they can to avoid having to confront whatever it is they fear.


There are many types of therapy available for treating phobias, but most of them are long, expensive processes. Success rates for successfully curing phobias using existing methods have been quite hit-and-miss, seemingly more dependent on the phobia sufferer themselves as opposed to the actual method of treatment. Findings from new research into methods of phobia treatment have been found to be "in sharp contrast with the currently pharmacological and cognitive behavioural treatments for anxiety and related disorders", which is news that should offer a beacon of hope to people in the grip of an irrational fear.

Drs. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt, from the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam have recently published findings in the latest issue of Biological Psychiatry, reporting a successful method for instant and long lasting reduction of fear after administration of a pharmacological treatment.

The researchers aimed to build on the notion of reconsolidation, which was a concept identified 15 years ago by Dr. Joseph LeDoux. He discovered that when memories are activated, they may be altered in ways that can strengthen or weaken them – so, with regards to phobias, the 'fear' memory can be strengthened or weakened.

A fucking tarantula. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

For the research, Soeter and Kindt selected 45 participants suffering from arachnophobia, and split them into two groups. After being exposed to a tarantula for two minutes, one group was given a single dose of propranolol, which is an adrenaline-blocking drug used in treating heart conditions. The other group was given a dose of a placebo.

The findings showed that "disrupting reconsolidation of fear memory transformed avoidance behaviour into approach behaviour – an effect that persisted at least one year after treatment". In other words, the participants who received the propranolol showed reduced avoidance behaviour and increased approach behaviour when confronted with spiders in the future, for a year at least, following the experiment. They were less scared of spiders than those who were given the placebo, basically. And they stayed less scared for at least a year after.

"Currently, patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioural treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms," says Kindt. "The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy".

The findings of the research clearly indicate that there is potential for a one-step, long-lasting phobia cure, which should be good news to phobia sufferers… and bad news for hypnotherapists.

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