Oct. 8, 2021 – People who are more than just a little spooked by all the incredibly realistic spiders featured in Halloween displays this time of year may be able to get help from a smartphone app.
Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias. When people with this condition encounter a spider, they can have physiological and emotional reactions right away, including a higher heart rate, intense fear, panic, and revulsion. People with intense arachnophobia may be afraid to spend time outdoors or in places like basements or garages where spiders might lurk in dark corners.
Treatment for phobias often involves what’s known as exposure therapy, when people are gradually put through a series of situations that require them to keep confronting the thing that scares them until their fear eases. But when it comes to arachnophobia, many people don’t get help because they can’t bring themselves to voluntarily seek out contact with spiders.
Scientists at the University of Basel in Switzerland developed Phobys with this in mind. The app offers people with arachnophobia a version of exposure therapy that doesn’t require them to physically interact with any real-life spiders.
In a free version of the app, people can take a test to see if they have arachnophobia. For a fee, those that do can download an augmented reality game that advances players through nine levels of exposure to spiders, culminating with a realistic 3D spider crawling on the player’s hand.
When scientists tested the app in a clinical trial involving 66 people with a fear of spiders, they found clear evidence that it can help make arachnophobia easier to bear. Researchers randomly assigned participants to complete six half-hour exposure therapy sessions in the app over 2 weeks, or join a control group that didn’t get this experience.
Before and after treatment, participants were asked to get as close as they could to a real spider in a transparent box and describe their feelings as they approached. People who used the app got much closer to the spider and expressed significantly less disgust and fear than their counterparts in the control group, according to results of the experiment published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.
But there are some caveats. All the participants were recruited to the trial specifically to test an app for fear of spiders, so it’s possible these results wouldn’t represent all people who have arachnophobia. None of the participants were over age 40 , either, so how the app might work for older adults is unknown. And the app wasn’t tested against other treatments, so it’s unclear from the study whether it would be more or less effective than other interventions.