How to Get Rid of Phobias [This American Life]

The Nuclear Option for overriding Fear of Spiders.

Audio source: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/740/there-i-fixed-it

Transcript

As long as he could remember, going back to when he was a child, Sam was scared of spiders. But not scared in the normal way, where lots of us don't feel great when we see a big spider, or a snake, or a big bug, or whatever.

Sam

It invaded all aspects of my life at all points in the year. I was thinking about spiders all the time. Any room I walked into, I looked in the corners. I looked under the table, crouched down. Every night before I went to bed, I fully unmade my bed.


Walking down the street, I wouldn't walk under anything that-- I would try to avoid right angles to the best I could, because that's where a spider is going to make its web.

Ira Glass

But you were scared that one would fall on you? Or just because that's where they are?

Sam

Whether or not it would fall on me was really irrelevant. Just seeing a spider, not moving, moving, large, small, it just created a feeling in my body that was just-- I would shake. I would throw up. I would faint. And of course, if you're constantly going through your life looking for spiders, you'll find one.

Ira Glass

As a kid, he didn't do sleepovers, didn't do summer camp. Other kids made fun of him. People did not understand. People pitied him.


And when he grew up, it did not go away. His fear ruined dates. He once found a spider the size of your thumbnail in his car and sold the car that day.

Sam

I had went to psychiatrists for exposure therapy. I had went to psychiatrists to talk about it. I couldn't watch an image of a spider on a TV screen.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you, does this name mean anything to you?

Sam

Hmm?

Ira Glass

Peter Parker.

Sam

No. Oh, oh, Spider Man.

Ira Glass

Yeah, could you watch those films?

Sam

No, absolutely not. I don't even know if Spider Man has anything to do with spiders, to be honest.

Ira Glass

And then, he was seeing a hypnotherapist, and it was going nowhere, when he read in The New York Times about this new treatment for phobias that can get full results in just one day. And he reached out to the doctor behind it, a psychologist, Dr. Merel Kindt in Amsterdam. And she invited him to be part of a study and get the treatment. He figured he had nothing to lose and flew to The Netherlands. A film crew captured what happened during his treatment for a documentary series called A Cure for Fear.

Merel Kindt

You're doing fine.

Sam

I'm so nervous.

Merel Kindt

Yeah, it's OK.

Ira Glass

Sam and Dr. Kindt stand outside the door of her room. She opens it. He looks in. There's an aquarium with a brown, furry tarantula, maybe 4 or 5 inches in size.

Merel Kindt

Yes, there's a spider in the tank. But let's not wait too long. So it would be very good if you can already walk in the room, and then I close the door. Very good, great. We're doing very well.

Sam

I think you can hear that I was breathing hard, and I'm feeling that there is adrenaline. I crouch down, my arms crossed.

Ira Glass

Dr. Kindt then opens the door of the tank.

Sam

Oh, whoa, god. No, no, no, you're not going to make me look in there, are you?

Merel Kindt

Yes, I'm going to ask you.

Sam

[HYPERVENTILATING]

Merel Kindt

So please come with me. So step in here, and then close it. Very good. And then, can you also--

Sam

Oh god!

Merel Kindt

Very good, very good. Yeah, come. And--

Sam

No! Don't make me go in there!

Ira Glass

Then, to get the spider to move around this tank, she sprays it with water. And every time she plays it with water, the spider waves its legs or moves around a little.

Sam

Yeah.

Merel Kindt

OK. How high is your distress right now?

Sam

It's like 100.

Merel Kindt

OK, but it's very important not to move away.

Sam

OK, I'm not moving away.

Merel Kindt

All right, spray it a bit so that--

Sam

(SCREAMING) Oh, god, no! [WAILS]

Merel Kindt

Yeah, that's very good. OK.

Sam

[HYPERVENTILATING] I gotta go!

Ira Glass

Sam, I'm wondering, like when you scream like this, I'm wondering what goes through your head.

Sam

That I feel like I can feel it on me, that I'm going to be attacked by it. None of this is rational, right?

Ira Glass

Mm-hmm.

Sam

I know it's not--


I know that the thing isn't going to jump out of the tank and move like 4 feet in the air and jump on me. I get that. But it doesn't matter, because I feel that the absolute worst things that can happen are going to happen and are, in fact, happening.

Ira Glass

The reason Dr. Kent wants him to max out on anxiety like this is that she wants to trigger the memories and feelings of fear of spiders that are stored in his brain. And then, when his brain goes to store this big new terrible experience with the old ones, it has to re-save the old memories. And she gives him a drug, a beta blocker called propranolol, that disrupts that process. And I know this sounds so simple. How can this be real? But by disrupting the way that the brain re-saves those memories, she neutralizes them.


The very next day, Sam returns to the same room. He walks right in. His breathing is normal.

Sam

There's fear in that-- well, I don't know that there's fear. I don't understand my feeling, because I've never been like this before.


Nothing physically, internally, was happening that used to happen to.

Ira Glass

You didn't feel the fear?

Sam

I didn't feel the fear. And when she said--

Ira Glass

No adrenaline?

Sam

No adrenaline at all. I felt, I guess, excitement that this was new.

Merel Kindt

You think you are able to touch it?

Sam

And she says, do you want to pet it?

Merel Kindt

Let's make a deal.

Sam

And I said, look, if you hold my hand, I'll pet the spider. And I did. And I petted it, and the thing started to move. And then she's like, do you want to pet it again? And I said, yes.

Merel Kindt

You touched the tarantula!

Ira Glass

That was over three years ago, and Sam says the effect of the treatment has only deepened as he's had more calm interactions with spiders. He doesn't look around for spiders anymore everywhere he goes. And remember he once sold a car when he found a spider in it? He told me that the day before I interviewed him, he was driving in the SUV that he owns today, flipped down the mirror, a spider dropped into his lap. He was going 60. He said if that had happened back in the day, before the treatment, he really might have crashed his car. But now, he rolled down the window, picked up the spider, threw it outside.

Ira Glass

Can you talk about just, like, how extreme the treatment was?

Sam

I thought at one point I was going to have a heart attack and die in that room. [LAUGHS] Yeah.

Ira Glass

Does it seem right somehow that you would have to go through something so extreme to get over something so extreme?

Sam

It's what had to be done, fighting fire with fire.


[MUSIC PLAYING]


Radiation therapy, it's your last resort option that you have to deal with a problem that can't be solved in any other way. This is the nuclear option.

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