Phobias are characterized by an excessive and irrational fear reaction that can be triggered by a wide variety of stimuli.
According to Health Line, these stimuli range from specific places — as is the case with agoraphobia or acrophobia, the fear of heights — to terrifying situations, such as flying (aviophobia) or speaking in front of an audience (glossophobia), to objects or creatures — for instance, the fear of spiders (arachnophobia), snakes (ophidiophobia), or dogs (cynophobia).
An estimated 19 million Americans are struggling with one type of phobia or another — amounting to 8.7 percent of the U.S. population, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
These phobias generally induce a very intense and crippling anxiety, instilling a deep sense of dread or panic whenever people come face to face with the source of their fear.
To alleviate the symptoms of the fear response — which in many cases can lead to a full-blown panic attack, triggering shortness of breath, elevated blood pressure, nausea, chest pain, trembling or shaking, and pounding of the heart — specialists are known to recommend a gradual exposure to the same stimuli that evoke fear.
This is typically performed via computerized therapy and allows the patients to confront their fears in a safe environment. While this method has gained more ground in recent years, this type of treatment takes a lot of time to produce results.
However, British researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) have discovered a way to make the treatment more successful.
In a new study published this month in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, the scientists argue that the key to treating a phobia is linking computerized therapy to the rhythm of the patient’s heart. The team uncovered that the method yields superior results when the exposure therapy is timed to match the individual’s pulse.
In the case of people suffering from arachnophobia, this would translate in showing them pictures of spiders at the exact time that their heart beats. In other words, the study advocates that the end to arachnophobia is “just a heartbeat away,” reports Science Daily.
An end to #arachnophobia might be just a heartbeat away! Researchers at BSMS have discovered that exposing people with #phobias to their fear at the exact time their heart beats, led to the phobia reducing in severity. #spiders #research ????️❤️
— BSMS (@BSMSMedSchool) October 30, 2018
“Spider phobia is a common form of anxiety disorder for which exposure therapy is an effective first-line treatment,” the authors write in their paper.
To demonstrate their theory, the scientists devised an experiment based on computerized therapy for arachnophobia in which the patients were shown pictures of spiders following three protocols: in-time with their heartbeats (during systole), in-between heartbeats (during diastole), and randomly throughout the therapy sessions.
The results revealed that the first protocol reduced fear much faster than regular exposure therapy.
“Many of us have phobias of one kind or another — it could be spiders, or clowns or even types of food. Treatment usually involves exposing the person to their fear, but this can take a long time,” said study senior author Hugo Critchley, who is Chair of Psychiatry at BSMS. “Our work shows that how we respond to our fears can depend on whether we see them at the time our heart beats, or between heartbeats.”
“You could say we’re within a heartbeat of helping people beat their phobias.”