One way to overcome an exaggerated fear is to dispute it with
thoughts that make it seem less threatening; for example, “I’m way bigger than that itty
bitty spider.” There’s a vast amount of evidence showing that this approach works.
But a new study
suggests that an even better way to fight fear is to simply describe your
feelings; for example, “I’m really scared of that ugly, creepy bug.”
Describe and Conquer
For the study, published online in Psychological Science, UCLA researchers rounded up 88 volunteers
with an intense fear of spiders. The volunteers were asked to gradually walk
closer and closer to a large, live tarantula in an open container and
eventually touch it, if they felt they could.
Then the volunteers were randomly divided into four groups. Those
in the first group were asked to come up with a sentence describing the spider
and their feelings in negative terms; for example, “I feel anxious the
disgusting tarantula will jump on me.” Those in a second group were asked to describe
the spider in unemotional, less negative terms; for example, “Looking at the
little spider is not dangerous for me.” The other groups talked about something
else or didn’t say anything at all.
A week later, everyone tried approaching a spider
again. The first group, who had put negative feelings into words, was
less stressed this time around than the other groups.
The best established treatment for a phobia—an intense,
debilitating fear that’s way out of proportion to any real threat—is exposure
therapy. Just like in the study, exposure therapy involves systematically
confronting whatever provokes the fear until you become less sensitive to it
over time. But in standard exposure therapy, you’re also taught to identify overly
negative thoughts and recast them in more a neutral light—in other words, to
think about the situation more like the second group did.
Exposure therapy is a very powerful treatment for phobias,
as research has shown time and again. In fact, a recent study from
Northwestern University showed that people with a lifelong terror of spiders
were able to walk up and touch or hold a tarantula after just a single,
two-hour session of standard exposure therapy. Better yet, they were still able
to touch the tarantula six months later, and brain imaging showed that activity
in brain regions associated with fear was still decreased.
Because standard exposure therapy works so well for spider
phobia, it’s impressive that the UCLA researchers were able to improve on it
just by having people verbalize their negative feelings.
Honesty the Best
One hot trend in mental health is the rise of acceptance and mindfulness-based therapies. These therapies emphasize noticing and
accepting thoughts and feelings—even unwanted ones—as you experience them from moment to
moment, without judging them or trying to force them in a predetermined direction. Michelle
Craske, PhD, senior author of the UCLA study, notes that honestly labeling
emotions—even negative ones—is right on point with this trend.
In a statement
about the study, Craske encourages people who are confronting a fear to
verbalize what they’re feeling—“not [try] to push it away and say it’s not so
bad. Be in the moment and allow yourself to experience whatever you’re
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