The way people develop fears and phobias has always been a mystery. But a new study gives new hints at how the brain may successfully process a phobia and how dwelling on the phobia is the last thing we should do.
Arachnophobia, the fear of spiders, is quite a simple phobia to induce. Show a picture of a whopping big tarantula and boom, the heart rate soars, sweaty palms, the body responds with a phobic reaction.
The new study involved showing arachnophobics very short glimpses of pictures of spiders. By using MRI scans ( its always MRI scans nowadays- the toy of choice- I want one), the brain could be monitored on how it responded to these images. What the researches noted was that the brain reacted in quite a different way to the images if exposed for a short time compared to a longer period. Different parts of the brain were activated. The almost sub conscious glimpse seemed to inspire the brain to reduce its fearful reaction, as if, by not being fully conscious of the image, somehow it was learning to calm its response.
A fear or phobia is often practised, usually unwittingly by the sufferer. The fearful memory or image we have in our minds is often recreated, dredged up, and we end repeating the fear reaction for as many times that we conjure it up. It never gets better, in fact the fear is being embedded. The phobic pathway through the brain is being strengthened, the path is more defined each time it is being used.
The fleeting glimpse of the spider picture, as evidenced by this new study, is being recognised by the unconscious but the body isn’t been given enough time to react. A good long stare at the tarantula would give the phobic patient long enough to access the fear. But the short glimpse gives the brain and body a new experience, an exposure to the trigger without the trigger response. And thus it learns not to be triggered, that the spider is not a threat.
As a hypnotherapist, my take on this is that the important part is not necessarily the brief exposure time but the fact that the body is not reacting. The brain is learning or indeed creating a new pathway, by staying calm through the process of exposure. The new useful pathway is being laid down due to a vital combination of events. Calmness combined with exposure.
So that’s the message today folks, you have heard it before.
Keep calm and carry on.
Andrew Cunningham contributes to the anxiety magazine site Modern Anxiety.