Make the fear go away

Suushi Yurei by Tobosha Licensed under Wikimedia Commons

I once found an unnatural-looking boy staring at me from the top of my wardrobe. Another time, a woman ogled me behind straggly long black hair while she slowly crept along my ceiling…

These were a couple of lucid nightmares I had after watching the horror film, Ju-on (2002), or The Grudge. Lucky for me, these uninvited guests soon disappeared after I realised my fear was unfounded – that my mind was just playing a trick on me.

Some people are not able to control their fear so easy, and for them, fear can be debilitating.

Recent research holds good news for these people and sufferers of anxiety disorders, as Schiller and colleagues (2010) suggest non-useful fear memories can actually be re-written, and the fear removed.

Humans have an amazing array of fears from ghosts, injections and cockroaches, to public speaking and cliff edges. Although often unpleasant for a short time, fear is a useful emotion for learning potential dangers in our environment.

It’s not working right

Fear can also be problematic. Some people experience excessive fear causing them to avoid objects or situations without the presence of danger, which may continue for long periods of time, and possibly indicate an anxiety disorder (Olatunji et al, 2010). Cognitive behaviour therapy and pharmaceuticals to block fearful memories are the main methods to currently treat these disorders.

Memory upgrade

In contrast to the traditional view of memory formation as a one-time process of consolidation the reconsolidation hypothesis suggests that memories are consolidated each time they are retrieved. (Schiller et al, 2010).

Schiller and colleagues (2010)’s innovative use of the reconsolidation hypothesis, involved associating cubes with mild electric shocks to create a fearful memory of these objects in test subjects. The fearful memory was then retrieved and updated or combined with non-fearful information by extinction training, resulting in the fear response no longer being expressed.

The results from this study may lead to long term non-useful fear extinction without the need for drugs, and help people such as phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers lead fuller lives.

On a related topic, I listened to Einstein-a-go-go (Triple R radio) the other day and Dr Lauren talked about a recent study that showed how sleeping soon after a traumatic event could increase subsequent distress from associated triggers (you can listen to it here at around 50:30 mins into the show).

Maybe I’ll try a cup of coffee after my next horror film.