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Treating Phobias With Each Heartbeat

A new U.K. study finds that exposing people with phobias to their specific fear at the exact time their heart beats can lead to a reduction in the phobia’s severity.

“Many of us have phobias of one kind or another — it could be spiders, or clowns or even types of food,” said principle investigator Hugo Critchley, Chair of Psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) in the U.K.

“Treatment usually involves exposing the person to their fear, but this can take a long time. 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.”

Individuals with phobias experience a disproportionately intense and disabling anxiety that is induced by specific situations or triggers, such as bridges or crowds.

Phobia therapy is often prolonged and involves a graded exposure to fear-provoking stimuli; however, these types of treatments have made some progress in recent years through the use of computerized therapy. The new study reveals that phobias can be treated more effectively by linking computerized therapy to the patient’s own heart rhythm.

In a previous study, BSMS researchers showed how bodily arousal signals that occur with each individual heartbeat can change the emotional impact of potential threats — for example, when experienced during a heartbeat they can appear greater.

In this proof-of-concept clinical trial, a computerized exposure therapy for spider phobia was combined with online measurements of heartbeats.

For one group of patients, pictures of spiders were presented in-time with heartbeats (during the signaling of cardiac arousal), while for another patient group, pictures of spiders were presented in-between heartbeats. A third control group was shown spiders in a random fashion during therapy sessions.

Although there was some improvement among all patients — as would be expected in exposure therapy — the findings show that participants exposed to spiders in time with their own heartbeats showed a greater reduction in their self-reported fear of spiders, anxiety levels and their physiological responses to spiders.

These improvements were also found to depend on differences in how well an individual patient can accurately feel their own heart beating in their chest, suggesting a further way of tailoring the treatment to benefit each patient.

Source: University of Sussex



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