Describing a Fear Helps Overcome It

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.

Creepy-Crawly Therapy

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 Policy

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 experiencing.”

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