Scared of Spiders? There’s an App for That

October 8, 2021 – People freaking out over all the incredibly realistic spiders on display at Halloween parades this time of year might be able to get help from a smartphone app.

The Phobys app uses the same augmented reality technology that makes playing mobile games like Zombies and Run! and Jurassic World Alive to help reduce the fear of spiders.

Arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, is one of the most common types of phobias. When people with this condition encounter a spider, they can immediately have physiological and emotional reactions, including an elevated heart rate, intense fear, panic, and disgust. People with severe arachnophobia may fear spending time outdoors or in places such as basements or garages where spiders may lurk in dark corners.

Treatment for phobias often includes what is known as exposure therapy, when people gradually go through a series of situations that require them to continue to confront the thing they fear until their fear subsides. But when it comes to arachnophobia, many people don’t get help because they can’t bring themselves to voluntarily seek out contact with spiders.

Scientists at the University of Basel in Switzerland developed Phobys with this in mind. The app offers people with arachnophobia a version of exposure therapy that does not require them to physically interact with any real spiders.

In a free version of the app, people can take a test to see if they have arachnophobia. For a fee, those who do can download an augmented reality game that offers players through nine levels of exposure to spiders, culminating with a realistic 3D spider crawling on the player’s hand.

When scientists tested the app in a clinical trial of 66 people with a fear of spiders, they found clear evidence that it can help make arachnophobia easier to bear. The researchers randomly assigned participants to complete six half-hour in-app exposure therapy sessions over a two-week period, or to join a control group that did not get this trial.

Before and after treatment, the participants were asked to get as close as possible to a real spider in a transparent box and describe their feelings as they approached. People who used the app got very close to the spider and showed significantly less disgust and fear than their counterparts in the control group, according to trial results published in Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

But there are some caveats. All participants in the experiment were recruited specifically to test an app for fear of spiders, so it is likely that these results are not representative of all people with arachnophobia. None of the participants were over 40 either, so how the app works for older adults is unknown. The application has not been tested against other treatments, so it was not clear from the study whether it would be more or less effective than other interventions.

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