In many ways, fear debilitates us. If we have a fear of flying, for example, we might think that getting on a plane would ultimately lead to a crash, so we'd restrict ourselves to land and water travel. A new study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders takes this further by suggesting that fear can even alter our perception.

Unfortunately, fear is not something we can easily control, either. "When it comes to phobias, it's all about avoidance as a primary means of keeping oneself safe," says Michael Vasey, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. Avoiding the things we are afraid of, however, won’t lead us to the truth of the matter. This only feeds our fear, making it almost impossible to overcome.

In the study, 57 people who claimed to have spider-related phobias were recruited. Over a period of eight weeks, these volunteers were exposed to five different tarantulas (with sizes ranging from one to six inches) kept in an uncovered glass tank at specific points in time. The participants began the experiment standing 12 feet away. Once they reached the point where they were standing right next to the tank, the volunteers were asked to guide the spider along with an eight-inch probe and then, later on, with a shorter probe.

After the experiment, they were asked to rate the level of their phobia from 0 to 100 based on an index of subjective units of distress. They were also asked to report about the fear they experienced and any panic attacks and symptoms they had. They also gave an estimate of how large the spiders were by drawing a straight line that was supposed to indicate the spiders' length.

The results? Researchers were able to find a correlation between the level of fear the volunteers felt and the accuracy of their perception. Those who felt a lot of fear had inaccurate estimates of the spiders' size--they believed the spiders to be bigger than they really were.

By studying fear’s effects on people, researchers hope to provide everyone with more insight on curbing their own phobias. While some fears may remain persistent, we'll at least have a better idea of how fear affects us and how it can alter our own perspectives.


For more on fear, check these out on FN:


(Movie still from Silent House courtesy of Open Road Films)

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