A new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience suggests that phobias can be cured through treatment received during sleep. Psychologists have long used what is called “exposure therapy” to help cure people with extreme phobias. This therapy involved repeated exposure to the patient’s phobias in small doses. The exposure eventually desensitizes the patient to the fear.
People suffering from extreme anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and even odd or unusual phobias could be the beneficiaries of this new sleep treatment. During the study, researchers delivered electrical shocks to the participants while also showing them pictures of faces and flooding the air with a specific odor. Eventually, because of the electrical shocks, study subjects came to associate both the pictures and the odor with fear.
When the subjects went to sleep, they were exposed to the odor but not the faces or the electrical shocks. When they awoke, upon seeing the faces and smelling the odor, their levels of fear were reduced. This suggests that repeat exposure to a fear stimulus could work in the same way as exposure therapy during a patient’s waking hours. Such therapy has been proven to be very effective in reducing or even curing certain phobias.
For example, some people who have non-traditional phobias such as a fear of balloons, for example, will seek out a therapist who is trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy to administer treatment in which the person is repeatedly exposed to balloons until their brain makes the switch from balloons being terrifying to balloons being normal. Once a phobia such as this is cured, the effect can be permanent for many patients. However, therapists say that a persistent negative attitude can reverse this effective treatment. Since sleep is essential in combatting stress and helping one have a positive outlook, this new possible sleep therapy treatment could potentially pack a “double wallop” when it comes to curing phobias.
Lead researcher in the study, Katherina Hauner, said “It’s a novel finding. We showed a small but significant decrease in fear. The bigger picture is that, perhaps, the treatment of phobias can be enhanced during sleep.” Adding sleep therapy or perhaps even attempting it as a first line of treatment for phobias could happen in the future upon the completion of further research.
Besides reducing stress, sleep can also impact memory of traumatic or frightening events, and this reduction in memory can be beneficial in the treatment of phobias. American Academy of Neurology member and Professor Mark Mahowald explained, “The study is important and exciting because it’s a reminder that sleep doesn’t just improve or consolidate memory. It can extinguish memories. The extinction of memory during sleep could be important for people with PTSD and chemical dependencies. Further research could look at relapse prevention.”
This new treatment could potentially ease the stress of exposure therapy that is performed while the patient is awake. By administering a harmless odor to perform the function of repeat exposure, the subconscious would work to cure the patient of the phobia, potentially without the patient experiencing any increase in heart rate, blood pressure or anxiety.
The study suggests that phobias can be cured through sleep, but more work needs to be done to confirm the results and find a path to accessible treatment for sufferers.
By: Rebecca Savastio