Is the end of term getting you all stressed out? The latest research suggests now may also be the perfect time to tackle that fear of spiders…yes, you heard right – spiders! A new study from Professor Oliver Wolf at Ruhr-University Bochum has shown stress can increase extinction learning, which unlinks two previously paired stimuli, and drives improvement in anxiety therapies.

Extinction learning is a key component of exposure therapy, which aims to reduce anxiety related symptoms by helping the brain unlearn fear-related connections and develop new ‘safe’ networks. It is one of the leading strategies for treating anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other related conditions. The main problem with exposure therapy however, is that it is very dependent on the situation. This means that whilst the harmful connections may be easily generalisable, the new ‘safe’ connections are very context specific. Since a therapist’s office does not effectively mimic the original situation bringing about anxiety, there is an increased likelihood of a connection reforming, and the anxiety association returning.

This study was based on the fact that many of these harmful connections can be formed when the body is subject to a lot of stress. Therefore, to increase the generalisability of extinction therapy, a mild artificial stress response was used. In the initial phases of the experiment, participants were subjected to a mild electric shock when shown certain coloured light. This meant, understandably, that they displayed anxiety when shown the lights. Subsequently, one half of group put their hands in ice water for three minutes in order to provoke a stress response, while the other half put their hands in warm water. Both groups then underwent exposure therapy in a different location to where they had acquired the fear. Key differences emerged the next day, with the ‘stressed group’ showing less relapse of anxiety when back in the original location. Previous results have shown that an injection of the stress hormone cortisol can increase the effectiveness of anxiety treatment; however, this study provides important evidence of an underlying mechanism and demonstrated that it can also hold across different situations.

Besides curing your deep fear of arachnids, this study has great implications in psychiatric medicine, with pharmacological trials planned soon. Further work is planned by Professor Wolf’s group to determine if this stress response can be used to increase the effectiveness of exposure therapy.