Oct 8, 2021 – People who are more than a little terrified by all of the incredibly realistic spiders that can be seen on Halloween displays this time of year may be able to get help from a smartphone app.

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

Arachnophobia, or fear of spiders, is one of the most common phobias. When people with this condition encounter a spider, they can have immediate physiological and emotional reactions, including a higher heart rate, intense fear, panic, and disgust. People with intense arachnophobia may be afraid to spend time outdoors or in places like basements or garages where spiders might lurk in dark corners.

Treatment for phobias often involves what is known as exposure therapy, in which people are gradually put through a series of situations where they have to confront the thing that terrifies them until their fear subsides. But with arachnophobia, many people do not get any help because they cannot bring themselves to voluntarily seek contact with spiders.

With this in mind, scientists at the University of Basel in Switzerland have developed Phobys. The app gives people with arachnophobia a version of exposure therapy that doesn’t require them to interact with 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 walks players through nine levels of exposure to spiders, culminating in a realistic 3D spider crawling on the player’s hand.

When scientists tested the app in a clinical study involving 66 people with arachnophobia, they found clear evidence that it can help make arachnophobia easier to bear. The researchers randomly assigned participants to complete six half-hour exposure therapy sessions in the app over 2 weeks, or to join a control group who had not had the experience.

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

But there are some caveats. All participants were specially recruited for the study to test an app for fear of spiders, so it is possible that these results do not represent all people with arachnophobia. None of the participants were over 40 years old, so it is not known how the app might work for older adults. And the app hasn’t been tested against other treatments, so it’s unclear from the study whether it would be more or less effective than other interventions.

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