A new study reports the successful and "instant" reduction of terror in arachnophobic participants.
“This won’t hurt a bit. Just play with a giant tarantula for a few minutes and then we give you a shot. Voila, spider terror vanquished.“
Could it really be that simple? I mean, it’s a bit sci-fi … and anytime you start giving people pharmacological injections to induce psychological change it does feel like a slippery slope into dystopian evil. But while tried-and-true behavioral therapies to treat phobias can take repeated sessions, this new approach could lessen stress and save both time and money. For those requiring medication to treat chronic fear-based anxiety, a one-shot deal could actually be more holistic.
In their exploration of phobias, Dr. Marieke Soeter and Dr Merel Kindt from the Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Amsterdam, wanted to elaborate on the concept of "reconsolidation,” a process in which when memories are activated, they may be modified to strengthen or weaken them.
The researchers gathered 45 participants who were afraid of spiders. The volunteers were exposed to a tarantula for two minutes and then randomly given a single dose of either propranolol (a beta blocker used for high blood pressure and heart conditions) or placebo.
Those who got the real propranolol experienced drastically reduced avoidance behavior and increased approach behavior, and not just for a few hours, but for a whole year.
"Here we show for the first time that an amnesic drug given in conjunction with memory reactivation transformed avoidance behavior to approach behavior in people with a real-life spider fear. The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy," says Kindt.
"Currently patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioral treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms," adds Kindt. "The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear."
The researchers say that more work is necessary to further test the treatment and to extend the findings to patient populations and more severe phobias. For those of us dedicated to natural remedies, the red flag may wave high. But for people suffering from debilitating fears, the research really could signal new possibilities. As Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, says, "This elegant study may suggest a strategy for accelerating the recovery from anxiety disorders."