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Fear Factor: Psychologists help people conquer anxieties and phobias

Fear can be a good thing.

Being afraid makes us heed severe weather warnings and keeps us from running across busy freeways. It is a survival mechanism for most, but for some people their fear has become consuming and out of control.

Mark Powers holds the LSAD resident python, Spot
Mark Powers, graduate student in the Department of Psychology, holds the LSAD resident python, Spot.

Since 1988 Dr. Michael Telch and the Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders (LSAD) in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin have been researching treatments for anxiety-related disorders such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias, including claustrophobia, arachnophobia and cynophobia (dog phobia).

“Anxiety is part of being a human being,” Telch said. “The question is when does it become a disorder? Mother Nature gave us an alarm system of anxiety and panic to cope with threats. This signal system is critical to our survival. The bad news is that this mechanism is capable of sending a false alarm.

“It can become a disorder when the alarm is out of proportion to the threat,” he added. “The hallmark is that the brain is receiving danger messages when the danger isn’t there. While many people have these false alarms, it becomes a disorder when it interferes with daily functioning or when the response is above and beyond what is called for. Anxiety disorders are the largest—and one of the most treatable—classes of psychiatric disorders.”

Rapid breathing, pounding heart and a desire to flee are typical—and reasonable—reactions to perceived danger, but for someone experiencing an anxiety disorder, these feelings become overwhelming. The fight or flight response kicks into overdrive when a person is experiencing the symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Research has shown that anxiety disorders in the U.S. cost more than $42 billion each year, about one third of the amount spent on mental health care in this country.

Though treatments for clients are individualized, Telch and the LSAD team frequently use an exposure-based treatment to help the client to not only face his or her fear, but to also obtain evidence that weakens the false sense of threat that maintains the fear.

“The idea of confronting your fear isn’t new, but we are working on ways to make it more effective,” he said. “What turns off the alarm? When most people are confronting their fears, they try not to think about it and to distract themselves to overcome their fear. We’ve found that the opposite is true, that distracting yourself can prolong recovery. We are looking at what new corrective experiences we can give this person to weaken their false threat perception.

Lucy is one of the spiders used in the LSAD to treat arachnophobia
Lucy, a tarantula, is one of the spiders used in the LSAD to treat arachnophobia.

“Our study of safety behaviors and their adverse effects have led us to the conclusion that the actions people engage in to cope with their fears inadvertently contribute to them worsening,” Telch said. For example, someone experiencing acrophobia—the fear of heights—will carry out safety behaviors that interfere with treatment such as gripping a rail when confronted with a precipice. As the grip tightens, threat signals are sent to the brain telling it that there is something to be afraid of, which in turn causes more anxiety.

“Our research suggests that identifying and withdrawing safety behaviors significantly enhances the potency of existing exposure treatments,” Telch said.

Austin resident Alfred Kinsey knows firsthand what these false alarms feel like, and how exposure treatment can work.

“I’d heard that Dr. Telch could help with a nasty spider phobia I’d had for a long time,” Kinsey said. “I knew it was over the top for years and it had become a running joke with my family and friends. I’m pretty thick-skinned, but when I found out about the lab I decided it was time to do something about it.”

After only three exposure sessions with Telch and his staff, Kinsey has overcome his arachnophobia.

“Essentially, they burned it out of me,” he said. “They exposed me to the point of being unreal. I became desensitized. You would never be with spiders that much in real life, so now seeing a spider or two has become anticlimactic.”

Spot is used in the treatment of ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes
Spot is used in the treatment of ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes.

Though he still has to persuade some of his friends that he is over his fear of spiders, a recent camping trip has convinced Kinsey that his arachnophobia is behind him.

“We went camping for a week in a place where there are spiders everywhere—in your bags, in the tents—just everywhere,” he said. “I had always been very nervous about camping there in warm weather because of the spiders. This time, people were coming to me to get the spiders out of the tents. A spider even bit me, and it was my friend—not me—who was freaking out about it. I’m completely thrilled with the outcome of the treatment.”

Another very treatable type of phobia is claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces. As many as 2 to 5 percent of the population experience severe claustrophobia, but Telch’s studies have found that 100 percent of participants show significant improvement after only 30 minutes of total exposure time.

The most common phobia?

“The biggest fear is public speaking, with 15 percent of American experiencing a dramatic fear of it,” Telch said. “People have had to turn down jobs, and certainly students have dropped classes because of it.”

The LSAD is featured in two episodes of a new National Geographic Channel series, “Phobia,” about several specific phobias and their treatments. The LSAD is highlighted in “Claustrophobia” and “Arachnophobia.” (Visit the National Geographic Channel Web site for the scheduled airtime.)

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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