Recent research shows that phobias could be alleviated if images of the perceived threat were flashed before the phobic person, allowing the brain to regulate emotional and behavioural responses to fear.
The study, published in Human Brain Mapping and led by Paul Siegel, associate professor of psychology at Purchase College of the State University of New York, suggests that this technique could be used to treat children.
In the study women who had a phobia about spiders were shown images of spiders so briefly that they remained unaware of them. They were then shown spider images for a longer time, so that they were clearly visible. At the same time, their brain activity was monitored and compared with that of women with no phobias.
In the group with phobias, seeing the spider images very briefly resulted in strong activity in areas of the brain that regulate emotional and behavioural responses to fear.
This was unexpected and resulted in the level of fear actually experienced being reduced, the researchers said.
In contrast, when women with phobias were exposed to clear images of spiders for a longer time, the brain was unable to control its response to fear, causing them to experience the full force of their phobia.
Scans suggested the brain worked harder to regulate emotional and behavioural responses to fear when it was not conscious of it, researchers found.
The BBC reported that the researchers said the technique could be used to treat children as current treatments are often based on persuading patients to directly face their fear, which could cause serious emotional distress.
A phobia is an irrational fear of an object, place, situation, feeling or animal and phobias are more pronounced than fears, and can become overwhelming and affect day-to-day life. They are particularly common in women.
The most common phobias in the UK include arachnaphobiea – fear of spiders; social phobia – fear of interacting with other people; agoraphobia – fear of open public spaces; emetophobia – fear of vomiting; erythrophobia – fear of blushing; driving phobia – fear of driving; hypochondria – fear of illness; and aerophobia – fear of flying.
Professor Siegel told the BBC: “Counter-intuitively, our study showed that the brain is better able to process feared stimuli when they are presented without conscious awareness. Our findings suggest that phobic people may be better prepared to face their fears if at first they are not consciously aware that they’ve faced them.”
And Dr Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said the technique could be a useful approach for treating children who could suffer significant distress if confronted head on by what was causing their phobia.
NHS Choices says some simple phobias can be treated through gradual exposure to the object, animal, place or situation that causes fear and anxiety, but treating complex phobias, such as agoraphobia, can take longer and require counselling, talking therapies or psychotherapy.
Nicky Lidbetter, from charity Anxiety UK, said the current treatment approach for this type of specific phobia was cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
“This approach aims to replace the fear response of a phobia with a relaxation response, through gradual exposure to the phobia inducing stimulus.”
The NCH says: “Generally, the solution is to see that phobia in a different context starting from an objective perspective and then gradually building up exposure from a minimal to comfortable level.
“By using hypnosis, this can be done rapidly as the unconscious is able to process information more effectively without the interference of the critical mind. This is a known as desensitisation.”
Often phobias can be treated in just one session, adds the NCH, saying that there is, however, no guarantee as change depends on the individual’s willingness to embrace it. Most therapists will therefore give a realistic expectation of how long treatment may last.
Each hypnotherapist may use a slightly different approach to treating phobias depending on whether the client knows when the phobia first started, how they view it and how receptive they are to change.