There is no better proof of just how many people are afraid of spiders than the number of folks who know that the term for it is “arachnophobia.” Some say the need for a weapon in the bathroom is one of the few things keeping magazines and newspapers in business. Finding a cure or a treatment — or at least a humane way to deal with the harmless arachnids – keeps a lot of mental health professionals and researchers in government funding. Fortunately for you arachnophobes, help is on the way … and it’s already in your hand. No, not that rolled-up National Geographic (an ironic choice for swatting insects, wouldn’t you say?) but your cellphone. Before you crack the screen throwing it at the ceiling, it’s an app!
“Although in vivo exposure therapy is highly effective in the treatment of specific phobias, only a minority of patients seeks therapy. Exposure to virtual objects has been shown to be better tolerated, equally efficacious, but the technology has not been made widely accessible yet.”
In a new study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders (just that title makes one anxious), Anja Zimmer and a team of researchers at the University of Basel (Switzerland) and Saarland University (Germany) explain how the limitations of exposure therapy for treating arachnophobia and similar fear disorders drove them to look for alternatives to treat the estimated 15% of the population who develops phobias in their lifetime and resist seeking treatment. Virtual reality headsets allowing wearers to feel they were in the presence of spiders was considered, but their availability is still limited. Augmented reality (AR) – viewing arachnids on a phone screen – appeared to be the next best alternative. If you’ve ever gotten so engrossed in a video game on your phone that you ignore everything else around you, you know how powerful it can be. To turn a spider video into an arachnophobia treatment, the team augmented the game-like app, which they name Phobys.
As described in an article in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society, 33 participants (18 diagnosed with arachnophobia) took two weeks to work their way through six 30-minute sessions covering nine levels of virtual spider exposure. These included looking at a virtual spider, collecting one, superimposing spiders onto their hand, walking through groups of spiders, and more. The subjects then rated their level of fear and disgust on a 10-point Subjective Units of Distress Scale. They repeated the exposure until their comfort level reached 4 – at that point, the app gives applause, cheers and other positive reinforcements before sending the subject to the next higher AR contact level.
Does this really work?
“We report that repeated home-use of the stand-alone, smartphone-based, gamified AR exposure app was effective in the reduction of phobic fear in participants with fear of spiders. Specifically, the app use led to reductions in fear, disgust and avoidance behaviour at medium effect sizes when tested in a real-life situation, and to reductions at large effect sizes in questionnaire-based fear measures.”
That’s a qualified “yes.” While many of the subjects showed clinically significant improvements in fear after only 90 minutes of using Phobys, the authors admit they couldn’t rule out the placebo effect, and they don’t have data on whether the improvements were long-term. However, when it helps, this type of AR exposure therapy worked on all levels of spider phobia. Of course, spiders appear nearly life-sized on a phone screen. That won’t help for pachydermophobia — fear of elephants.
What’s that on your shoulder?