Spider Web

A phobia or anxiety disorder is kind of like an onion.

No, not because it can make you cry, but because it has several layers.

First, there are the symptoms of the disorder itself – elevated heart rate, for example. But there are also what psychologists call the meta-emotional aspects of the disorder – how you feel about having the disorder and how it shapes the way you think of yourself.

Although these problems are secondary to the disorder itself, some researchers have put forward the surprising hypothesis that treating these secondary aspects of an anxiety disorder might in fact improve the disorder’s primary symptoms. Or, to put it another way, that the meta-emotional problems associated with phobias can perpetuate the phobias themselves.

And this idea isn’t purely theoretical. Some recent research done at University of Rome has found evidence to back up this hypothesis and hinted at new possible treatments for anxiety disorders.

The study was done on 33 people with animal phobias. The most common phobia was spiders, which accounted for 8 participants, but the range of animal phobias accounted for in the study is enough to make up a (really terrifying) zoo:

  • Spiders: 8
  • Bugs: 6
  • Bees: 4
  • Cats: 3
  • Grasshoppers: 2
  • Dogs: 2
  • Butterflies: 2
  • Snakes: 2
  • Pigeons: 2
  • Insects: 1
  • Lizards: 1

During the study, participants were given a survey asking about meta-emotional problems associated with their phobias. For example, one of the questions they were asked was “How childish do you evaluate yourself?”

Then they were shown videos of the animals they had phobias of. For example, here are some frames from the video the people with the pigeon phobia watched:

Pigeon Phobia

If this seems a little cruel, don’t worry! The participants did get 20 Euros for being put through it. Which raises an interesting philosophical question: would you face your greatest fear for 20 Euros?

Anyway, what happened next was the interesting part of the experiment. Half the participants were selected to undergo an exercise targeting the meta-emotional problems associated with their phobias.

Specifically, they were prompted by a licensed cognitive-behavioral therapist to compare the way they viewed their symptoms to the way they would view their symptoms in other people. This kind of comparison between how we treat ourselves vs. how we’d treat others in the same position can help us become more compassionate toward ourselves by bringing to our attention ways in which we’re a lot tougher on ourselves than others.

Following this intervention, both the participants who had received the intervention and those who hadn’t were asked to watch the videos again. While watching the videos, participants also had their heart rate and heart rate variability monitored.

This time around, people who’d received the intervention had significantly lower physiological responses to the videos. However, they didn’t seem to actually feel any less anxious, suggesting that the brief exercise targeting meta-emotional problems decreased physiological but not psychological phobic symptoms.

This finding adds weight to the idea that people’s secondary emotional reactions to phobias play a role in sustaining those phobias, including even the phobias’ basic physiological symptoms. So exercises that help people view their phobias in different terms could actually improve symptoms of the phobias themselves.

Besides pointing the way to new lines of treatment, this study has a more general lesson for all of us: sometimes the best way to fix a problem is by changing the way we think about that problem. One way or the other, reflecting on how we react to situations we don’t like can make us more at peace with ourselves, and it might even alter the basic facts of the situation that was making us unhappy in the first place.

What d’you think? Are you surprised by this finding? Share in the comments!

Image: FreeImages.com/Andrew Beierle