As the saying goes, the best way to overcome your fears is to face them, and a new study from two Swedish universities is taking this to the next level. The research suggests that exposing patients to their biggest fear in order to associate it with a happier memory while simultaneously working to weaken or erase the fearful memory can help to drastically improve anxiety in some individuals.

When a person is reminded of something, the memory is retriggered. Retriggering causes the memory to momentarily become unstable until it is re-saved in the mind. The Swedish team showed that if you disrupt the re-saving of the memory, the memory-creation process can be disrupted and the memory that is saved can be changed. Specifically, the team weakened or erased fear memories using this method and hope the results could be used for improved treatment of anxiety disorders.

“It is striking that such a simple manipulation so clearly affects brain activity and behaviour. A simple modification of existing treatments could possibly improve effects,” explained Johannes Björkstrand, a PhD student involved with the research in a recent statement. “This would mean more people getting rid of their anxieties after treatment and fewer relapses.”

For their research, which is now published online in the journal Current Biology, the Swedish team showed individuals with arachnophobia pictures of spiders while measuring their brain activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with fear. They found that a mini-exposure of 10 minutes before a more extensive exposure to the photographs reduced activity in the amygdala when the volunteers looked at the images again the next day. The team proposed that this was because the short exposure weakened the fearful memory the volunteers had of spiders. This weakened memory was then saved, and made it harder for the fear to return upon re-exposure to spiders. These results were not just seen in brain scans. Volunteers subjected to this treatment also showed reduced avoidance of spiders when compared to the control group.

The team hope that this finding may help phobia patients who were unable to overcome their phobias with traditional exposure treatment. For example, although this is a common treatment for phobia patients, for some patients, the learning that takes place during the treatment is not permanent. As a result, the fearful memory may return at some point later on after an initially successful exposure. Adding this new method of disrupting the re-saving of memories could help make these results more permanent.

Source: J Björkstrand et al. Disrupting Reconsolidation Attenuates Long-Term Fear Memory in the Human Amygdala and Facilitates Approach Behavior. Current Biology . 2016

Read More:

‘Phobia Free’ App Helps Arachnophobes Conquer Fears Through Tarantula Exposure: Read Here

I Had No Idea! 10 Phobias You Didn’t Know Existed, Plus A Few Extra To Make Your Skin Crawl: Read Here