Can naming your fears reduce arachnophobia?

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

Day 1

You're staring at a live Chilean rose-haired tarantula. To be fair, it's in a container and it's 5 feet away, but still - it's pretty big. Now the researchers instruct you to approach it - in a series of 10 standardised steps. By the last step you are touching the big, hairy spider continuously with the tip of your index finger. That's if you can force yourself to make it that far.

Now you're assigned to one of 4 possible groups:

Group One: Naming Your Emotions - 'affect labelling'

In this group, the participants are instructed to create and speak, out-loud, a sentence including a negative word to describe the spider and one or two negative words that capture their feelings about the spider.

“I feel anxious the disgusting tarantula will jump on me”

Group Two: Re-Structuring Your Thoughts - 'reappraisal'

In this group, the participants are told to ignore how they feel and create and speak a sentence that will try to help convince themselves that the spider isn't so bad. It has to include neutral words to describe both the spider and their thoughts about it.

“Looking at the little spider is not dangerous for me”

Group Three: Trying To Think Of Something Other Than The Spider - 'distraction'

In this group, the sentence the participants are instructed to create has to include an object or piece of furniture from their home the room it is in.

“There is a television in front of my couch in the den”

Group Four: You're On Your Own - 'exposure'

In this group, participants are given no instructions about how to deal with their fear of the spider.

Once you've got the hang of the instructions for your group you are sat two feet from a screen which is about to show a live stream of tarantula. It's another big one, with a leg span of six inches. The live broadcast of the tarantula is shown in 38 second bursts. There are ten of these, so you're going to get ten 38-second bursts of live tarantula two feet from your face. However, you're prompted to use the technique from your assigned group. So everyone, except those in group four, says their sentences out loud each time they're staring at the spider on the screen.

Day 2

You need a quick refresher to get the hang of your group's fear-coping strategy, so you're given another ten bursts of the 38-second tarantula live stream. And, just like before, during each one, you're prompted to use your group's technique (naming your emotions, reappraisal, or distraction).

But then, you're taken back outside to where the real spider is, in its container, and you have to go through the ten approach steps again so that, if you make it, you end up touching the real spider with your finger. This bit is in silence so you have to use your new coping strategy in your head, rather than saying it out loud.

Day 9

Finally, you are back outside for one last trial with the real spider in the container, the same ten steps, the same finger on the spider (if you make it all the way).

So, What's This All About?

As all this was going on a number of measurements were being take to gauge your level of fear. These were:

  1. Skin Conductance Response (SCR) - an objective physiological measure of fearful arousal, transmitted from two electrodes attached to your fingers

  2. Behavioural approach - how far you got through the 10 steps to approach the spider (ending with touching it)

  3. Self-reported fear - how scared you felt on a scale of 0 to 100 at the end of each trial

This is the procedure used by Katharina Kircanski, Matthew D. Lieberman, and

Michelle G. Craske at the University of California. And what they found was that the participants trained to name their emotions had significantly lower skin conductance response than any of the other groups. Their self-reported fear was no different, so they still thought they were as scared, but the objective, physiological fear measurement - SCR - told a different, interesting story.

It's interesting because typically, reappraisal (used in CBT) and distraction have long been thought of as front-line coping techniques for negative emotions. But this suggests that, rather than turning away from your negative emotions, turning towards them - accepting and naming them - may be a better way to deal with them. The emotion-naming group also did marginally better on the 'behavioural approach' measure too.