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Putting a Positive Spin on a Fear of Spiders

Summary: A new study could provide hope for people with phobias.

Source: University of Manchester.

New research by a University of Manchester psychologist could give new hope to people who are scared of spiders.

Dr Warren Mansell says rather than encouraging arachnophobics to face their fears, which is the current approach of many therapists, giving them control over how much they approach or avoid what they are afraid of is more likely to help.

Despite decades of research and dozens of studies, psychologists still don’t know whether it is better for the client to control their own approach towards what they fear, or for the therapist to ‘encourage’ and ‘direct’ them.

Dr Mansell bases his findings, published in Journal of Anxiety Disorders, on a theory known as Perceptual Control Theory.

He said: “Perceptual Control Theory predicts that it is vital for a client to have control over their experience of important elements of the environment like the sources of threat, because control itself is pivotal for health and well-being.

“So we recruited a large sample of 96 people with high levels of spider fear and asked them to list their reasons for avoiding spiders but also their reasons for approaching spiders. Therapists treating phobias and anxiety may not need to encourage or direct their clients to face their fears, as is often assumed. Once people are made aware of their mixed motives, they may make choices that address their fears quite naturally.”

“After completing a simple task in which they could move an image of spider closer or further away on a computer screen, people who had control over their virtual distance from the spider actually got closer to the spider after completing the task.

“And they also reported avoiding spiders less in their everyday lives two weeks later, despite their fear, and without any prompting to do so.”

He added: “This implies that therapists treating phobias and anxiety may not need to encourage or direct their clients to face their fears, as is often assumed.

Image shows a spider in its web.

Despite decades of research and dozens of studies, psychologists still don’t know whether it is better for the client to control their own approach towards what they fear, or for the therapist to ‘encourage’ and ‘direct’ them. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the University of Manchester news release.

“Once people are made aware of their mixed motives, they may make choices that address their fears quite naturally.

“Though only 28% of the sample had a clinical level of phobia and the task was experimental, we do feel that this outcome is useful for therapists treating people with fear of spiders.

“In future we need to see whether this kind of simple intervention can make a lasting difference to the distress and disruption phobias can have in people’s lives.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source: University of Manchester
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the University of Manchester news release.
Original Research: Abstract for “An experimental test of the role of control in spider fear” by Andrew Healey, Warren Mansell, and Sara Tai in Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Published online April 29 2017 doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.03.005

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article

University of Manchester “Putting a Positive Spin on a Fear of Spiders.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 10 April 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-arachnophobia-6374/>.
University of Manchester (2017, April 10). Putting a Positive Spin on a Fear of Spiders. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved April 10, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-arachnophobia-6374/
University of Manchester “Putting a Positive Spin on a Fear of Spiders.” http://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-arachnophobia-6374/ (accessed April 10, 2017).

Abstract

An experimental test of the role of control in spider fear

It is well established that uncontrollable adverse experiences lead to increased distress, but the role of client control during psychological interventions such as exposure is less clear. Earlier studies reported inconsistent findings, most likely owing to variations in the way client control was manipulated, degree of exposure, the outcome variables chosen and the follow-up periods used. Importantly, studies to date had suggested to participants that approaching their fears was beneficial thereby biasing their choices and these studies had not measured change beyond the laboratory. We recruited 96 spider-fearful student participants (mean age = 22; SD = 5.9; Range = 18–45; 86 female). The experimental design allowed full choice over their degree of exposure, and manipulated the degree of control as the extent to which their movement of a joystick influenced their virtual distance from a moving spider image. Those with high control were yoked with a low control counterpart to ensure equal amounts of exposure. Measures were elicited at baseline, post-exposure, and at follow-up. As predicted, compared to low control participants, those with high control over exposure approached closer toward a spider post-exposure and reported less spider avoidance after an average of 17 days. No group differences were found in physiological or subjective distress during the task, nor in distress and dysfunction.

“An experimental test of the role of control in spider fear” by Andrew Healey, Warren Mansell, and Sara Tai in Journal of Anxiety Disorders. Published online April 29 2017 doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2017.03.005

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