The researchers, led by Dominique de Quervain, reasoned that, if cortisol interferes with memory retrieval, dosing phobia sufferers with the chemical before exposing them to their personal phobia trigger would help them manage their phobias. The study included 40 people with social phobia and 20 with spider phobia (arachnophobia). Half were given cortisol and the others a placebo over a two-week study period.
After their cortisol/placebo dose, the social phobics were asked to give a public speech, while the arachnophobics were exposed to a spider. It was found that the participants who were administered the hormone reported they experienced less stimulus-induced fear and anxiety – and the fear response was gradually reduced over the course of the two-week study.
Moreover, the participants in the placebo group who reported the least anxiety released the most cortisol, a finding that supports the researchers’ hypothesis.
The research team proposed that treatment with cortisol, in combination with behavioral therapy, could be used to alleviate phobias and post-traumatic stress disorders.
But Cosmo Hallstrom, of Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists, took issue with this, saying, “It seems unlikely that you could remove a long-term phobia by simply altering the chemical levels of something that’s already present in the body. This is very interesting research. But it is only part of the story.
“Phobias have two components. One is the fear of whatever it is you have a phobia about. But the other is that you spend your life avoiding that thing. This treatment wouldn’t help with that.”