If you’re scared of spiders, you’re definitely not alone. But scientists now claim a cure for arachnophobia is ‘just a heartbeat away’.
Researchers discovered exposing people to their fears reduces their anxiety – if it’s timed with the exact beat of their hearts.
Sussex University experts, behind the study, also believe their findings could apply to other common phobias.
The findings, published in the Psychosomatic Medicine journal, could form the basis of a new treatment for irrational fears.
Current treatment is often prolonged and involves a graded exposure to stimuli, according to the NHS.
But the new research shows they can be treated more effectively by linking computerised therapy to the patients’ own bodily rhythms.
Professor Hugo Critchley, chair of psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) and the principle investigator, said: ‘Many of us have phobias of one kind or another – it could be spiders, or clowns or even types of food.
‘Treatment usually involves exposing the person to their fear, but this can take a long time.
‘Our work shows that how we respond to our fears can depend on whether we see them at the time our heartbeats, or between heartbeats.
‘You could say we’re within a heartbeat of helping people beat their phobias.’
The same researchers had previously revealed how bodily arousal signals that occur with each individual heartbeat can change the emotional impact of potential threats.
For example, when experienced during a heartbeat, they can appear greater.
In this proof-of-concept clinical trial, a computerised exposure therapy for spider phobia was combined with online measurements of heartbeats.
For one group of patients, pictures of spiders were presented in-time with heartbeats.
While for another patient group, pictures of spiders were presented in-between heartbeats.
A third control group saw spiders randomly in the therapy sessions.
Although there was some improvement among all patients, individuals exposed to spiders in-time with their own heartbeats showed a greater reduction in self-reported fear of spiders, anxiety levels and their physiological responses to spiders.
These improvements were also shown to depend on differences in how well an individual patient can accurately feel their own heart beating in their chest, suggesting a further way of tailoring the treatment to benefit each patient.