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Freaked out by heights? Pill may help

By Randy Dotinga

Call it the hair of the dog that bit you: Psychologists say the best way to get over a phobia is to slowly and carefully expose yourself to the very thing you fear.

Easier said than done, of course. But now, a new study says a hormone that stresses people out can actually help the process along.

In people who were afraid of heights, doses of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, appeared to help them get over their phobias more quickly by preventing their minds from shutting down under stress. "It helps the body stay alert," says study co-author Brenda K. Wiederhold, executive vice president of San Diego's Virtual Reality Medical Center, which treats phobias through computerized simulations.

An estimated 9 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from phobias, and about a third of them pursue some sort of treatment, often through cognitive behavioral therapy. "What you want to do is change the way the brain is thinking about that specific phobic object," Wiederhold said. "If it's fear of spiders, you want to change the way the brain is thinking about spiders and give it accurate information."

Wiederhold's clinic combines virtual reality with so-called "exposure therapy" to allow patients to learn how to cope with their fear and ultimately overcome it. Flying-phobic patients might visit a virtual simulation of an airport, for instance. (Hopefully they don't charge $4.50 for a bottle of water there.)

In the new study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers gave placebos or small doses of cortisol to 40 people with extreme fear of high places (scientists call them acrophobics). An hour after taking the pills, the patients began a series of three treatment sessions, which involved a kind of virtual-reality therapy that simulated a ride in an outdoor elevator.

The hormone seemed to help patients keep their focus and avoid mental collapse, Wiederhold says. "What we want to do fully engage the brain, but not have them crash. They see that they're not going to fall, and they start to understand the new memories in the brain."

So should phobic people ask their shrinks about cortisol? Maybe, Wiederhold said, but the research is still preliminary. 

If you have a phobia of reading stories about treatments for phobias, by the way, congratulations for getting this far. 

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