Conquering Your Fears

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 10:24am

Doctors develop rapid therapy process to help people overcome fear of snakes.

Many people are afraid of snakes.

But for some, snakes are so terrifying that their fear becomes a debilitating phobia.

A group of Connecticut doctors are working to help cure them.

"We're interested not only in how to help people get better and how to help people get over a fear, but we're interested in what exactly happens in the brain when people learn how to overcome a fear," says Dr. David Tolin, director of Hartford Hospital's Anxiety Disorders Center.

Joan Lewis Newington's fear began early.

"When I was young, probably about 5 years old, my sister, who was almost 2 years younger than I, and we were playing in our front lawn, sitting there, and behind her, around the corner of the house, a huge snake was coming, and I saw it coming and tried to scream and I couldn't, I couldn't move, I was just petrified," she recalls.

Her phobia makes her a prime candidate for Hartford Hospital's one session exposure therapy treatment.

Patients are shown pictures of snakes as well as everyday objects so doctors can watch what happens when the phobia is in action.

Then, it's time to touch.

So how can this kind of close exposure, cure a snake phobia, so quickly?

It turns out understanding what goes on in your brain before and after the exposure is key.

Dr. Michael Stevens says there are clear indications of where the phobia is registering in the brain.

Understanding that will help doctors prevent it from kicking in.

"They're having good results, we've known this treatment works for decades. This is a very good validated treatment for phobia. We're trying to make it better," says Dr. Stevens.

With a combo of exposure therapy and medication patients have been able to overcome their fear of snakes in just one session.

"Essentially we're taking a very good behavioral treatment for fear and we're putting a jet pack on it, so it becomes more effective, more efficient," says Dr. Tolin.

There is more research to be done, but Joan says it worked for her.

Her family was shocked that after one session her life-long fear of snakes is gone.

"They still can't believe it. My children especially, because they've seen it all their lives too, and they're just amazed that I no longer have that fear," she says.

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