FEAR no more!

A 2005 study of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in Washington, published in their newsletter Brain Briefings and official website www.sfn.org, provided a clearer treatment for the management of phobias. Breakthroughs in the treatment are introduced by redirecting the focus on the formation of new memories and targeting specific brain receptors and neurochemicals.

The phobia “antidote”

Traditionally, phobias are treated by conducting behavioral techniques that involve the constant exposure of the person to the feared object until he learns to overcome this fear. But in the study conducted by SfN, scientists propose a better treatment of fear, which involves the formation of a new memory rather than the erasure of the fear memory. Thus, the person does not unlearn the excessive fear, but he learns to overcome it because he is made to realize that the thing he fears is not really fearsome. In short, the fear is not erased; it is overruled.

Another treatment proposed was through working directly on the compounds that trigger the brain’s fear control system. In examining a brain component, N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor, which is responsible for memory enhancement, it was found that a certain compound blocks the NMDA receptor, which prevents the person from overcoming fear. Further, the discovery of D-cycloserine, a compound that boosts the receptor’s activity is said to increase the ability of overcoming phobias.

The SfN study is supported by a 2007 finding of the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Maryland, in which the effectiveness of D-cycloserine is tested in treating social phobia and associated fears.

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The Society for Neuroscience is a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians who study the brain and nervous system. It was formed in 1969 and has currently over 38,000 members and is the world’s largest organization devoted to the study of the brain. It also publishes the scholarly journal The Journal of Neuroscience weekly.

The “abnormal” fear

According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) last 2003, there are two types of fear: normal fear and phobia.

Normal fear is the reaction to an impending danger, such as when one will be attacked by a snake or held at gunpoint, while a phobia is an irrational fear wherein the individual experiences excessive fear in the mere presence of an impending danger, a specific object, animal or situation.

Examples of phobias are thanatophobia, the fear of death or dying; cacophobia, fear of ugliness; arithmophobia, fear of numbers; zoophobia, fear of animals; and xenophobia, or fear of strangers or foreigners.

A phobia is developed when fear becomes exaggerated or unreasonable. According to Dr. Leo Deux Fils de la Cruz, a volunteer counselor from the Psychotrauma Clinic of the UST Graduate School, any negative situation that is unprocessed by the human brain would continue to be experienced by the individual as if the experience is relieved again, even in the occurrence of a totally different situation.

De la Cruz said that phobias are not only acquired by a person during infancy but also in the adult stage of life. “If an adult brain cannot integrate a certain experience, a phobia is developed,” he said. He also added that a person’s phobia may be the reason why he reacts to fear differently. “An individual, due to a previous traumatic experience, would react violently to a certain situation whereas a normal person may not.”

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Fear spectrum

The DSM-IV-TR specifically classifies phobias as either specific or social. The essential feature of a specific phobia is marked by persistent fear of discernible objects or situations. It may be further classified as to animal type, natural environmental type, blood-injection-injury type, and the situational type.

Animal phobia is characterized by the fear of certain animals or insects. Natural-environmental phobia is described as the fear of objects in the natural environment such as storms, heights, water, or air. Blood-injection-injury phobia is experienced by a person who may be subjected to invasive medical procedures, and is illustrated by the fear of seeing blood or injuries. And lastly, situational phobia, which is constituted by fear of public transportation, elevators, airplanes, driving, or closed spaces.

According to the APA, social phobia is marked by the persistent fear of one or more social situations in which embarrassment may occur. This includes the fear of public speaking and performing, fear developed when a person sees what you are writing or reading, and fear of relating to others.

“Innate” fear

De la Cruz says that fear is an emotion perceived by a person’s brain to be a threat to survival according to memory or past experiences.

“Fear triggers the fight or flight response which protects an individual from dangerous stimuli,” de la Cruz said.

According to de la Cruz, the factors affecting fear may naturally occur or may also be learned. “Naturally occurring fear may be acquired by a person innately during birth due to some hormonal abnormalities or environmental factors, or it may also be adapted from the outside world due to unavoidable bad circumstances experienced by the person,” he said.

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But despite fear being an unpleasant feeling to man, de la Cruz said that it is an essential emotion that all must obtain in order to grow, learn, and survive in an environment.

“Fear is important because it serves as a means of stimulating the psychological and physiological responses of an individual. While phobias are excessive and irrational fears that humans can live without,” said de la Cruz.

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