The Way To Overcome A Phobia Might Lie Within Your Own Body, According To Science

by Julia Guerra

Everyone has something that shoots goosebumps up their arms, that makes them freeze. For some, it’s the image of eight hairy, tiny legs spinning an extravagant web, or being in a dark room without any windows for light to peek through. For me, it’s colorfully painted clown faces with smiles extending from ear to ear. Phobias are fears that trigger intense emotional responses that, to an outsider looking in, might come off excessive. Even if, logically, the fear isn’t warranted, it still deserves to be treated with care, and new research says the way to overcome a phobia in a moment of terror might not be as involved as you’d assume. Therapy and/or medication can, of course, be helpful for some people, but medical solutions aside, a new study may have found a way to tackle fear as soon as it’s provoked: by listening to the sound of your heartbeat.

There are fears and anxieties that boil up and over as time goes on, and then there are fears that are stark phobias, that rile you up from the inside out in a matter of seconds. They wash over you like a violent wave, hitting you like a dodgeball to the stomach. Personally, my initial reaction in these types of situations is often to sink into that fear. It’s almost like I melt into the moment, as if my mind and body give out and let the phobia take the reigns.

While you should absolutely try to overcome a phobia with the help of a professional if your anxiety around that fear begins to negatively affect your quality of life, the results of a new study suggest it may be possible to conquer these emotions in the moment by tuning into something inside your own body: your heartbeat.

During the clinical trial, which has been published in the medical journal Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers from Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England analyzed the link between a person's computerized exposure to spiders, and a measurement of that person's heartbeats. According to a press release from the university, the experiment included 53 participants who were split into three groups: The first group was shown pictures of spiders in time with their heartbeats; the second group was shown photos in between heartbeats; and the third group was presented with the same photos, but at completely random times.

In the end, as per the study's press release, the researchers found that those who were shown photos of spiders in time with their heartbeats said they felt less anxious, and experienced a less intense physiological response to the crawlers they’d otherwise find super creepy.

While you might think these fears only affect a small number of people, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) states that 12.5 percent of adults in the United States will experience some kind of phobia at some point in their lives. And even though the NIMH notes that specific phobias don’t actually pose any real danger, Robert Glatter, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, Northwell Health, says they can still lead to very real anxiety symptoms.

“A person can become paralyzed with fear if the anxiety the perceived threat creates can’t be alleviated,” he tells Elite Daily. In other words, the longer you experience the fear, the worse you're likely to feel. “Even simple thoughts about a specific phobia can produce severe symptoms of anxiety,” Glatter adds, such as heart palpitations, chest pain, and outright fear.

Paying close attention to your heartbeat, according to this new study, may help you better understand how your body responds to your phobia, and from there, based on the intensity of your heartbeat, you and your doctor can narrow down the best ways for you to calm down during these moments. According to mental health counselor Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC, this is where soothing activities, like meditation and breathing exercises, may come into play.

“In decreasing your heart rate, you are likely to prevent a full blown panic attack,” Forshee tells Elite Daily, so zeroing in on the rapidity and intensity of your heartbeats may be one of the first steps to overcoming your physical response to these types of phobias. From there, Forshee says, you can use this knowledge to recognize what kinds of relaxing activities actually calm you down.

In terms of therapies that can be helpful for people with a specific type of phobia, both Glatter and Forshee tell Elite Daily that desensitization therapy is one of the most common techniques. The experts say this involves exposing a person to their phobia a little bit at a time, “in the least intrusive way possible.” For example, Forshee says, someone who is afraid of wasps might be asked to talk about wasps before being exposed to still images, then video, and so on, in order to instill a sense of control in the individual experiencing the fear.

“[Desensitization] may be a zig-zag type of progress, with incremental improvements, mixed with regression at times,” Glatter tells Elite Daily. But, he explains, if both the patient and their therapist have patience, and are persistent about the process, he says the technique can be very beneficial.

Phobias are as individual as the people experiencing them, so naturally, it makes sense that how someone copes with a phobia ultimately depends on what they respond to. If you experience any intense phobias yourself, to the point where it's affecting your quality of life, don't hesitate to reach out to a professional and seek the help you deserve.