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Phobia Attack: Courting Fear with Cortisol, the Stress Hormone

While Robert Bruce renewed his motivation to fight setbacks after watching a spider weave its web, after falling to the ground many a time, // there are quite a few of us , who cannot look a spider in the eye, let alone fathom its mastery over the web ! If creeps and spiders make you run a mile, here’s something to bolster your confidence to fight fearful situations.

Arachnophobia, or any phobia for that matter could be alleviated with a dose of the stress hormone, cortisol, researchers say via a study, published this week. The University of Zurich team has zeroed in on the benefits of injecting the stress hormone, before being exposed to the fear.

Basically, phobia treatments involve exposing the person concerned to doses of fear or phobic triggers, while gradually increasing the intensity of exposure and duration, much like holding a spider or placing a spider on the person’s back. The idea is to learn to deal with the fear, than avoid it. Some other therapies include talking to persons and changing the way they perceive the fear.

Cortisol is known to arrest the process of memory recall, and to test this idea in combating fear would mean giving a dose of this hormone before a fearful or phobic situation and check if it really proves productive. A study followed where 40 people with social phobia and 20 with spider phobia were involved, where half of those studied were given cortisol and the rest a placebo.

They were then exposed to their phobic situations, example, being asked to address an audience, or confront a spider, depending on their confession of phobia. It was observed that those who received the hormone reported a decline in fear response to stimulus-induced fear and anxiety. And those who were p[petrified of spiders clearly showed a gradual decline in fear during each session of the 2 week study, holding no till the final session when no drug treatment was provided. It was also observed that those persons who had received the placebo and yet reported less fear and anxiety had actually released the most cortisol, which only substantiates the essence of this study.

The team, led by Dr Dominique de Quervain, has reported that cortisol treatment combined with behavioral therapy could be used to lessen and also mitigate phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders that are provoked by a particular stimulus.

Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said, "It seems unlikely that you could remove a long-term phobia by simply altering the chemical levels of something that's already present in the body. This is very interesting research. But it is only part of the story. Phobias have two components. One is the fear of whatever it is you have a phobia about. But the other is that you spend your life avoiding that thing. This treatment wouldn't help with that."

Nicky Lidbetter, manager of the National Phobics Society, said "As phobias have a strong behavioural component ,we would see this particular treatment as something that could be used to complement other psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy."


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