Answer to curing greatest phobias could lie within our own heart

30 Oct 2018

Image: © Scott Waby/

Researchers have found a way for us to reduce the severity of phobias by timing our exposure to them in line with our heartbeat.

While there is no accurate metric of the number of people with phobias in the world, the fact that they range from the common (fear of spiders) to the extreme (fear of Velcro) indicates that a significant amount of people are affected by them.

So, it should come as some relief that researchers are working to find ways of helping us overcome them, including ways for us to ‘hack’ our bodies to dampen the fear and anxiety triggered by whatever phobia a person might have.

In a paper published to Psychosomatic Medicine, a research team from the University of Sussex has detailed evidence showing that exposing a person to their phobia at the exact time their heart beats could reduce a phobia’s severity.

The research was developed upon a concept called computerised therapy that involves a graded exposure to fear-evoking stimuli. By linking this therapy to a patient’s own heart rhythm, researchers believe it can be made more effective.

“Many of us have phobias of one kind or another – it could be spiders or clowns or even types of food,” said Hugo Critchley, principal investigator of the study.

“Our work shows that how we respond to our fears can depend on whether we see them at the time our heart beats, or between heartbeats. You could say we’re within a heartbeat of helping people beat their phobias.”

How it worked

A team from Brighton and Sussex Medical School had previously revealed how bodily arousal signals that occur with each individual heartbeat can change the emotional impact of potential threats; for example, when experienced during a heartbeat, they can appear greater.

In this latest trial, a computerised exposure therapy for spider phobia was combined with online measurements of heartbeats. One group was presented with pictures of spiders in time with their heartbeat, while another group was shown spider pictures in between heartbeats. A third group was then shown pictures of spiders at random.

While a gradual reduction of fear was seen due to established exposure therapy results, study participants who were exposed to pictures in time with their heartbeats showed a greater reduction than the others. These improvements were also shown to depend on differences in how well an individual patient can accurately feel their own heart beating in their chest, suggesting a further way of tailoring the treatment to benefit each patient.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic