Everyone has fears, either kept private or expressed openly. Some people get trembles and shaky hands at a fear of public speaking, or supervisors, some people are afraid of heights, high speeds or stuffy confined spaces. Phobias are a common thing, but letting them go is not so simple. Soon it may become possible to replace sessions conducted by psychiatrists with an unusual and pleasant treatment … during our sleep, scientists say.
Are you afraid to ride subway, to meet with your own boss or look down from the balcony on the fifth floor? Perhaps, getting rid of these phobias, instead of a chair in the office of a psychiatrist, pillows and blankets will be just as efficient. Targeting brain activity during sleep can help mitigate the effects of fear-inducing memories, researchers claim. An “anchor”, entrenched in the brain as an association with a fearful memory, acts in the opposite way, as a healing agent during sleep.
Phobia is an unpleasant, even painful disorder. In fact, this is normal fear, amplified many times and reaching pathological state. It can be provoked by anything: insects, mice, stray dogs, confined spaces, driving at high speeds. The feeling of paralyzing and panic fear is accompanied by sweating, heart palpitations and involuntary trembling of hands and feet.
In contrast to the normal fear, which often can be managed, phobias cannot be controlled by consciousness. Attempts to try to persuade a person that the field mice are not dangerous and that driving at a hundred miles per hour is not a great speed are worthless. It is estimated by physicians that various phobias affect more than ten million people worldwide. But since many of people do not seek help, preferring to endure or avoid frightening situations, the true number of those suffering from uncontrollable fears is likely to exceed this estimate.
Doctors say that the most obsessive fears appear in the late puberty or early adulthood after a traumatic situation has occurred, but many phobias are suffered by adults as well. The nature of a phobia can lie in the direct source of experienced troubles, driving at high speed, which led to an accident, train crash in the subway, when the person had to spend long hours in a stuffy car and felt bad, or maybe related to an unpleasant association, which later rooted in as a distinct fear. For example, a young man after having a quarrel with his girlfriend and returning home ran into a stray aggressive dog. Unpleasant feelings after the argument were superimposed onto the fright of animal behavior, which served as a source to form a phobia.
Today, phobias are often treated with the “exposure therapy”, which involves re-living conscious experiences when patients are affected by fears. A young man in our example would be offered again and again to imagine the stray dog, first in a cage, then in another corner of the room, then somewhere in close proximity to him, and so on. The person would have to describe his feelings during these imaginary experiences. It is known that while being in a safe environment under supervision of a specialist, traumatic response is gradually reduced, and the fear disappears.
Unfortunately, this treatment by itself is frightening. Many patients experience a lot of stress when they try to imagine themselves in a traumatic situation, and some simply refuse to repeat sessions, preferring to live with their phobias for years. Neurologist Katrina Hauner and her colleagues from Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago (USA) are working on a less traumatic way to administer therapy by exposure. Their treatment approach is applied to a sleeping patient, and as the initial experiments indicate, it is quite effective!
It was previously believed that working with fears can only be done consciously; otherwise it would be impossible to alter the emotional reaction of a person. But Hauner’s experiments show that it is not always necessary to “scare” patients while they are awake.
To create unpleasant memories, the scientists delivered to volunteers small electrical discharges. Simultaneously, the subjects were examining photographs of faces, each accompanied by the scent of lemon or mint. Images and smells were “anchors”, which later strongly associated with the electric shock. Later, looking at these pictures and experiencing the same smell, the volunteers in anticipation of electric shock began sweating.
Shortly after the first stage of this training session, the subjects were told to go to sleep right in the lab, with electrodes still placed on their heads, and which were recording brain waves. In the phase of rapid eye movement (REM) when recent memories are reproduced and amplified, the air around volunteers was filled with the “scent of fear”. This way, the researchers tried to trigger the memory of the “frightening ” face, which was associated with an electric shock. Just as during wakefulness, when exposed to the smell, sleeping patients showed signs of sweating at first. Gradually, however, this response has weakened, but the most interesting fact was that the decline in reaction to the “fear-filled” stimulus persisted after awakening.
After waking up, volunteers did not experience as much fear at the sight of the face, the accompanying smell of which they were repeatedly exposed to in their sleep. Changes in the activity of amygdala, the region of the brain controlling emotions and fears, showed that the treatment during sleep did not erase fearful memories, but created new, innocuous associations accompanying smells and faces in the photos. The longer study participants slept, and the more smells they were exposed to, the weaker their fear became.
This paradoxical effect, as suggested by Katrina Hauner, is due to the fact that artificial activation of unpleasant memories during sleep is more similar to that same exposure therapy than to real nightmares that do not cure, but only frighten patients even more. According to her, repeated experiments are needed to find out how lasting the effect of treatment in a sleep is, and whether it can be used to treat common, and especially chronic forms of phobias. “This is a very unexplored field of research. In my opinion, we should focus our work on creating a more refined experimental design”.
Meanwhile, about a year ago, experts from the Northwestern University in Illinois (USA) proposed an aromatherapy treatment of phobias in a similar way. During the study, the volunteers were shown pictures of faces, and the demonstration of each photo was accompanied by exposure to a certain smell, a new one for each new face image. During demonstration of one of the face photos, the participants were subjected to small electric shocks. Researchers evaluated the extent of fear using instruments which recorded the values of skin conductivity. After the first stage of this experiment, one group of participants was told to go to sleep, while the second group was asked to stay awake. During the sleep, the first group of volunteers was exposed to a smell, which was used in showing one of the pictures and electric shock. The experiment was repeated the next day.
It was found that those participants, who went to sleep after the first stage of the experiment, experienced much less discomfort during demonstration of “intimidating” images. And the longer they stayed exposed to a certain smell during their sleep, the less pronounced their fear became. The volunteers who were exposed to the smell only during waking hours, on the contrary, reacted the next day to the “dreadful” image being intimidated even more.
It seems that the method of reducing fear during sleep is indeed promising. Scientists hope that eventually the “treatment under the blanket” can be used in correcting these phobias and disorders following traumatic experiences.