Having suffered from a phobia for most of my life, I’m always on the lookout for a new phobia treatment.
The problem is, most treatments take time and prolonged exposure to the subject of the phobia. As a consequence, it’s much easier to walk away from this kind of treatment than try and keep on confronting your fears. However, for people like myself, there may be some respite. A recent study suggests there is a simpler way to treat phobias. This new phobia treatment revolves around your heartbeat.
The study did use a type of exposure therapy but with one major difference. It timed the exposure of the specific fear with the person’s own heartbeat.
Professor Hugo D. Critchley led the study at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS). He explains:
“Many of us have phobias of one kind or another — it could be spiders, or clowns, or even types of food.”
Top Ten Most Common Phobias
- Arachnophobia – The fear of spiders
- Ophidiophobia – The fear of snakes
- Acrophobia – The fear of heights
- Agoraphobia – The fear of open or crowded spaces
- Cynophobia – The fear of dogs
- Astraphobia – The fear of thunder and lightning
- Claustrophobia – The fear of small spaces
- Mysophobia – The fear of germs
- Aerophobia – The fear of flying
- Trypophobia – The fear of holes
Fear of holes? Really? Okay. Going back to the therapy, the easiest type of exposure therapy uses computers to generate pictures of the specific fear. So, for example, arachnophobes are shown images of spiders.
The therapy may start off with very small images of spiders. Consequently, the images will get bigger and bigger. At the same time, the person will describe their anxiety to the therapist. Gradual exposure desensitises people as they learn it is safe to be around the object of their fears.
New Phobia Treatment Uses Heartbeats
The study at BSMS used exposure but with one difference; they timed the exposure of the images with the person’s heartbeat. But how did they stumble on this premise?
Previous studies researching new phobia treatment had revealed that a person’s heartbeat is key to the amount of fear produced when exposed to a potential fear trigger. In particular, the timing of a person’s heartbeats.
“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.” Prof. Critchley.
Researchers used three groups, all with a fear of spiders. One group were shown images of spiders at the exact time of their own heartbeats. The second group were shown the images in-between their heartbeats. The final group was the control. They saw random pictures of spiders.
As you might expect with any kind of exposure therapy, all the groups improved. However, there was a much greater reduction in fear in the group who were shown images in-time with their own heartbeats. There was also a decrease in their physiological response and anxiety levels with regards to the images of spiders.
Furthermore, the individuals with the highest levels of improvements were the ones that could really feel their hearts beating in their chest. But why does syncing your heartbeat to exposure of your fear help overcome your phobia? Professor Critchley spoke to The Independent. He says:
“We think that showing spiders exactly on the heartbeat automatically increases attention on the spider, which is followed by period of low arousal.” Prof. Critchley
How This New Phobia Treatment Works
What does this mean in lay terms exactly? Well, I’ll try and explain. There are two important factors to this study. They both relate specifically to exposure therapy. The first factor is all about a thing called ‘interoceptive information’.
Interoception is the ability to really sense or feel what is going on inside your body. For instance, when we feel hungry and our stomach growls, or that pressing feeling when we need to use the bathroom. Notably, in this study, the times when we can feel our heart beating.
There is research that suggests that having an ability like interoceptive information can benefit exposure therapy. But why? Now, this the second important factor to this study and is all to do with perception.
In particular, ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ processing. The easiest way of understanding this kind of perception is that top-down is the cognitive way we process the world. In other words, the clever way we use our brains to solve problems. On the other hand, bottom-down is our senses, our eyes, ears, touch, taste etc, or to clarify, the basic way we receive and process information.
This new phobia treatment activates both interoceptive information and top-down and bottom-up perception.
Research suggests that by becoming aware of our heartbeats (interoceptive information), this increases the bottom-up signals (our senses). In turn, this reduces how we subjectively view the object of our fear. Furthermore, being aware of our heartbeat also improves our behaviour which is dependent on top-down processing. Or, in other words:
“This increased attention enables people to learn that spiders are safe.”
But I think it’s a lot simpler than that. When I have a panic attack, the first thing to happen is my heart starts to race and pumps way out of control. This sets off a domino effect. My palms are sweaty, my legs feel weak, I want to throw up and I think I am having a heart attack.
I believe that by focusing on our own heartbeats we somehow manage to control them. We regulate them to their normal pace. As a result, our body stops pumping those anxiety-producing hormones like adrenaline through our veins. We start to relax and feel a sense of control over the situation.
This is certainly good news for people that suffer from certain types of phobias. Whether this new phobia treatment can be used to treat the more complex types is yet to be seen. But Professor Critchley is optimistic:
“You could say we’re within a heartbeat of helping people beat their phobias.”