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
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
a tarantula, is one of the spiders used in the LSAD to treat
“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 acrophobiathe
fear of heightswill 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
“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
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.”
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.)