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Anxiety researchers have a high-tech way to help you conquer your fear of spiders

They’re using the gamification of therapy to beat arachnophobia.

Anxiety researchers have a high-tech way to help you conquer your fear of spiders
[Photo: Skouatroulio/iStock]
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Fear of spiders is quite real. For nearly 100 million Americans, something about eight hairy, scampering legs—attached to a body with six to eight rotating eyeballs—crawling up and down walls and across ceilings seems to strike a nerve. There’s a reason the early-2000s reality TV touchstone Fear Factor often had contestants submerge themselves in a tub of tarantulas, or that a smash hit ’90s movie bore the name Arachnophobia and centered on the invasion of a deadly, prehistoric spider species. It’s one of the most common phobias in the world.

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But just because your fear is real doesn’t mean the task of conquering it has to be. In fact, it can now be totally virtual: Anxiety researchers from Switzerland’s University of Basel have developed an augmented reality-based smartphone app designed to help patients beat arachnophobia.

For some background: A typical way of “curing” phobias involves exposure therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that has patients gradually confront what they fear until they eventually become comfortable with it. However, the logically circular problem with using it to treat arachnophobia is that people who are afraid of spiders don’t want to be near them in real life: According to the researchers, the method is “rarely used . . . because those affected are reluctant.”

Enter, Phobys: This app takes the process virtual, leading users through nine levels that inch you closer toward the ultimate goal of interacting with a realistic, 3D spider model, which can be projected onto grass, a table, or even your hand. With every level, the objectives become more intense, and each ends with an assessment of the user’s fear and disgust, determining whether the challenges should be repeated before advancing. The app also spouts congratulatory feedback, sounds, and animations in order to keep users motivated—essentially, it’s the gamification of therapy.

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And according to the researchers at Basel, it works. The team put 66 arachnophobic patients through a clinical trial probing Phobys’s effectiveness, and after two weeks, the group that had completed six half-hour training units with Phobys showed “significantly less fear and disgust” when observing a real-life spider through a transparent barrier, compared to the group that had received zero training. Those results were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

The app is available for both iOS and Android, from Apple’s App Store or the Google Play Store. (You can test the extent of your fear with a virtual spider for free, but must purchase treatment in-app). The team also notes the app can be used independently for those suffering from “mild” cases of arachnophobia, but recommends those with “severe” cases use it under supervision from a medical professional.