So, I'm really, really afraid of spiders: Phobias and the Brain
While having a picnic in a park one sunny afternoon, a small spider crawls onto the picnic blanket of two friends. From a distance,both friends are noticeably afraid of the spider, but upon further observation,one of the friends is displaying fear solely in reaction to the spiderappearing on the blanket while the other is panic stricken. What is the cause of the different reactions? Both are exhibiting a type of fear, each fear beingdefined by their underlying origin. The first person was exhibiting fear inreaction to the appearance of the spider that simply startled her; whilespiders were something that the second person was genuinely afraid of. The action of the second person to spiders can easily be defined as a phobia,which is " an irrational, intense, persistent fear of certain situations,activities, things or persons" . On the surface, a person who has come in contact with their phobia becomes increasingly upset, exhibiting both panic and extensive worry; but what occurs where phobias are formed, the brain? What specific areas of the brain become active in response to phobias? Over 14million Americans suffer from varying phobias and there has been research doneon treatments that aim to cure phobias and eventually prevent them. But in lightof this research and treatments, can one ever completely get rid of theirphobia?
Fear in itself is a natural occurrence. It makes us alert to danger and ultimately prepares us to deal with it. As the anecdote stated above, the two friends bothexhibited fear but the latter type of fear was far more extreme than the first.Since a phobia is an intense fear reaction to a particular thing or situation,the fear is often out of proportion to the potential danger, which is notimmediately present most of the time. A picture of a spider could very muchupset the second friend because even though a real spider is not present"...to the person with the phobia, the danger feels real because the fearis very strong" . The fear that is felt is usually so strong that itcauses the person to react much differently that a person who was simplystartled.
The number of Americans suffering from a phobia is steadily rising and as a result,there has been countless studies done on how the brain reacts when a person is exposedto their phobia. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill(NAMI), phobias are classified as anxiety disorders that, more often than not,are linked to the amygdala, an almond shaped area of the brain located behindthe pituitary gland in the limbic system. Besides being responsible forsecreting the hormones that initiate the "fight or flight" reactionto seemingly dangerous situations, the amygdala is also thought to storeemotional memories of the first encounter a person had with his/her phobiawhere they exhibited a strong fear reaction . So when even a representationof the phobia is present, the amygdala reminds the person of this strong fearreaction which results in panic, dread and great fear.
Eventhough the amygdala is the area of the brain that is first to respond toemotional stress of the body, it also reacts to a fear without fully processingthe situation. This is where other areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus,come in. After a study was conducted in which people who suffered from aphobia- specifically snakes and spiders- were rapidly shown pictures of eithera snake or a spider followed by neutral pictures. To produce results, theparticipants were also shown pictures of their phobias for a longer time beforethe neutral picture was shown. In comparing the two trials, researchers foundthat " the amygdala responds immediately to anything that might bethreatening, but that with more time to process other areas of the brainsuppress the amygdala's initial response" . Thus, when given more timeto realize that their phobia is only exhibited on a photograph, the reactionsassociated with phobias were stifled.
Therehave been many developments in treatment options for a person suffering from aphobia. Because phobias interfere with the everyday life of a person sufferingfrom them- a person afraid of a spider could avoid their attic or gardenindefinitely in fear of coming in contact with one-the most popular approacheshave been methods to desensitize the patients to the feared entity. Butbehavioral techniques that involve gradual exposure to the feared object orsituation until a person learns to control their physical reactions to fearoften do not work because they are usually slow or costly and most of all,patients fear the treatment itself . Prescribing drugs used for depression that alter certain chemicals todecrease anxiety are also seen as viable treatments, but their ability to curesomeone of their phobia is not guaranteed.
Withthe aforementioned methods, the phobia of a patient can still be present. Oneof the most effective methods to help a person face their phobia is calledCognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. This area of therapy is considered to besuperior because it "tries to help people figure out why they are reactingas they are, and then change the thought patterns that lead to thatreaction" . CBT can be considered a "thinking about thinking"type of therapy that eventually helps desensitize patients to the triggers ofanxiety and ultimately helps them to confront their fears. But can a personever be completely rid of their phobia? How can "thinking aboutthinking" help a person confront their anxiety and their overall fear of acertain thing or situation?
Fordecades, the adult brain has been considered hardwired and fixed in its formand function. Though it is known that adults can both gain and lose brainsynapses, it was thought that their brain would remain unchanged overall.Recent research has shown that the adult brain exhibits neuroplasticity whichis essentially " the ability to change its structure and function inresponse to experience" . From analyzing the results of a studyconducted by Alvaro Pascual-Leone on people who constantly thought about playinga certain song on a piano and were ultimately able to do so, scientists arefinding that mind sculpting can occur without input from the outside world,that the brain can change as a result of the thoughts we think . When aperson with phobia understands the cycle of negative thought patterns bythinking about ways to change these thought patterns, they are ultimately ableto desensitize themselves to their fears by training their brain to adoptdifferent thinking circuits; thus proving that the mind can ultimately changethe brain.
Understandinga person's phobia as the brains reaction to a previous strong emotion of fearcan help the person face their respective phobia. The physical reactions to aphobia are ultimately so strong as a result of the negative thoughts thatactivate certain parts of the brain. Though any given treatment of a phobia canbe helpful in some way, thinking about the negative thought patterns that comewith a phobia can ultimately help a patient by replacing old ways of thinkingwith new trains of thought, which can ultimately rewire ones brain. Although adefinite cure of phobias has yet to be discovered, realizing that the adultbrain can slowly, but surely, be rewired to change its way of thinking remindsus to not to ultimately underestimate the power of the brain.