Magazine article Psychology Today

Hacking Fear

Magazine article Psychology Today

Hacking Fear

Article excerpt

FEAR KEEPS US alive in a dangerous world-but too much can make it hard to function. Research is guiding us toward new ways of stamping out problematic anxieties, such as phobias, by attacking them on multiple fronts. -AmyNordrum

VIRTUAL TRAINING

When it comes to the bogeyman, kids are often told it's all in their heads. That's useful advice, ? since managing the ways we think about react to fears can help keep them in check. In a new study of fear of heights, subjects used computer simulations to work through risky scenarios. The exercise was as effective in reducing symptoms as exposure therapy-in which a person faces down what they fearthe current gold standard of phobia treatment. "A lot of individuals with anxiety interpret ambiguous information in a negative way, so we were trying to train them to think in a more positive way," says Shari Steinman, a coauthor of the study and a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Similar approaches have shown promise for social anxiety and fear of spiders.

UNCONSCIOUS REWIRING

Just like memories, fears can coalesce while you're fast asleep. Researchers are trying to reverse that process by taking advantage of the brain's ability to learn, even at rest. In one study, researchers induced an aversion to certain faces and scents in 15 people by grouping those stimuli with exposure to a mild electrical shock, and then reduced those fears by reexposing the people to the scent-without the shockwhile they slept. Qnce they awoke, subjects no longer exhibited fear upon seeing the associated faces. "We can take this to mean that individual memories related to a fearful or anxietyproducing event can be specifically targeted and changed during sleep," says Katherina Hauner of Northwestern University, who coauthored the study. …

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