[Audio] How Fear Can be Helpful in Treating Anxiety
A commonly accepted fact in treatment that when you want to help people suffering from anxiety, you want to get rid of the fear. New research has shown, however, that fear may actually be helpful in treating anxiety. On Sounds Good, Dr. Michael Bordieri and Tracy Ross discuss using fear as a treatment method for some mental health issues.
Dr. Bordieri says the scientific process has helped re-imagine or better understand how to help people. Fear comes from a 'learning history' he says, involving classical conditioning and pairing things together. Common wisdom dating back to the 1920s says if you face your fear, then fear will go away. The idea is that "habituation" is a way to reduce fear by confronting it.
For example, if you're afraid of snakes then spend some time with a snake and fear will then naturally go away over time. New research suggests that habituation alone may not be the best way to help reduce or eliminate an anxiety. It might be better to keep fear enhanced throughout sessions over time, Bordieri says. The idea is sustaining a higher degree of fear (in a safe and secure environment) when doing work in therapy. This is how learning occurs, he says.
The new model is called 'inhibitory learning.' Over time, the thing we've been afraid of becomes less scary by interacting with more than one instance or iteration of the fear. Dr. Bordieri says to spend time with not only one snake, but bring other snakes into the mix, then bring the original snake back. He says we may naturally expect bad things to happen, but learn over time that the bad thing doesn't happen and that what we've been afraid of is not that scary. We see learning take place, he says, and fear no longer has control over someone's life.
He says, just because the old way works doesn't mean the old way is the best way of doing things. Inhibitory learning can more efficiently treat phobias, he says. For fear of crowds, he suggests confronting this fear in different ways by, possibly, seeking to get yourself noticed by singing a song or laying down on the sidewalk.
"The goal here is fear enhancement, not necessarily going in and everything going great, but learning that even when things are going bad, even when you are the center of attention or people are laughing at you, maybe it's not as bad as you thought it would be. And actually it can kind of be fun sometimes," he says.