Three new things we discovered about phobias in 2013

In short: We go through all the new research into spider phobia and other specific phobias published this year. We bring you the three most intriguing new findings.

2013 has been a great year for phobia science. It might be because of all the people with triskaidekaphobia out there, who knows. The thing is this year we have started to understand more about the genetic basis of phobias and how a phobias change or affect our brains. Without further ado here my top 3 science of phobia findings for the year.

At number 3 we find a paper looking at how Williams's syndrome affects mental and emotional health. Williams's syndrome is a genetic disorder resulting from the having 26 genes from the long arm of chromosome 7 deleted. That leaves the person with a delayed development, 'elfin' features, a cheerful disposition and an ease with strangers. The paper showed that people with Williams syndrome had a higher rate of specific phobias than expected. They also tend to have more problems with anxiety. Researchers have attributed this to their sensitivity to noise. It is amazing to think that a mere 26 genes out of approximately 21,000 can affect personality and emotional health so much.

At number 2 we came across a very interesting review of recent studies looking at what we see on brain scans with anxiety disorders. The thing that caught our eye was the section on specific phobias that looks at 5 studies. These are before-and-after treatment studies that look at what happens in the brain after we do exposure therapy and desensitisation. The researchers saw decreased activation in limbic areas of the brain (the parahippocampal gyrus and the fusiform gyrus). These bits of the brain are linked to memory and recognising scenes and faces. They are located at the level of your ears and on the internal side of the brain. The association is solid enough that we could use it in research to see if a given treatment is helping with phobias or not. Here's a pic

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Every day on line we find new articles in the popular press looking at the causes for phobias. A very popular recent one seems to be that we learn them from adults. If a kid sees a grown man freaking out about flowers chances are the kid will be scared of flowers. Of course there is some truth to this and it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view that kinds will pick up cues as to what to avoid from adults. The example with the flowers might be short lived if the kid comes across other adults that don't run away every time they see a pansy. However the causes for phobias are complex and include genes, learning (including learning from what adults do), parenting, and evolutionary preparedness. Our top study for this year looked at how heritable are different types of phobias, i.e. how much of the chance to develop a phobia can be directly attributed to whether your parents had a phobia and not to whether they taught it to you or you saw someone scared witless of something. Turns out that the fear of specific animals, such as being scared of spiders, is 45% attributable directly to your genes. Take a look at the paper to learn more.

If you have spider phobia or you know anyone who does why don't you participate in the Halloween Face your Fear campaign. We have teamed up with Anxiety UK to help people come forward and face their phobia for Halloween. We have made our app, Phobia Free, completely free of charge for October so you can get sponsored, download it and overcome your fear using it.