Yale Studies and Treats Sufferers of Spider Phobia

For as long as she can remember, Emily Cherlin has been afraid to go camping, avoided basements, and even hesitated to open a window for fear of meeting a spider.

“It was more the look of them than what I thought they might do to me,” says Cherlin, a research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine.

Yet, after only three treatment sessions with Yale Department of Psychology researchers, Cherlin was able to lie still while a small tarantula named “Wednesday” treaded lightly across her forehead. And that was after several minutes of letting Wednesday march up and down her hand. “I now know they are more afraid of me than I am of them,” said Cherlin.

The program began in February and is directed by Bethany Teachman, a graduate student, and Sheila Woody, assistant professor of psychology.

So far, seven groups of three to six persons have been treated after responding to advertisements looking for sufferers of spider phobia. The word “arachnophobia” was purposely not used because of a movie of that title that plays on peoples’ worst fears about spiders. A phobia is defined as a fear that is excessive and extreme to the point of interfering with daily life.

The treatment is called cognitive behavioral therapy and it involves having program participants move closer and closer, literally, to the objects of one of their most entrenched fears. They begin by looking at pictures of large, hairy spiders, and progress at their own pace to sitting in a room where four tarantulas of increasing size – Wednesday, Rose, Wilbur and Spike – are brought into the room. The participants gingerly move from looking to touching to allowing the smallest spider to roam up and down their hands, arms and even faces, if they choose.

Teachman, who is conducting the research project for her dissertation, measures the participants’ fear and disgust before, during, and after the program is concluded. There also is a two- month follow up. To date the success rate has been very high.

One graduate, Kristi Lemm, a graduate student in psychology, has progressed from freezing whenever she saw a spider to being able to, at a recent party, casually reach out and snatch a spider that had dropped down on a silken thread over an unsuspecting friend.

“I actually caught it twice. The first time it slipped away,” she said. “I maintained composure throughout. I pulled it to the floor and someone stepped on it.”

In psychological terms, spider phobia is an anxiety disorder and Teachman is measuring the level of fear throughout treatment using the Implicit Association Test. The IAT was pioneered by Psychology Professors Mahzarin Banaji of Yale and Tony Greenwald of the University of Washington to reveal unconscious racial and other prejudices.

“We hope to evaluate whether the IAT will be sensitive to treatment effects and predictive of relapse,” Teachman said. She also is investigating the relationship between different methods of fear measurement.

If the IAT is successful in measuring implicit fear, Teachman said it could be used to identify individuals at risk of developing anxiety disorders for the purpose of early intervention. It also could measure treatment progress and the likelihood of relapse, as well as resolve what are often inconsistent results in measuring anxiety.

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