It’s natural to feel uncomfortable around a spider, but for around 10 percent of the general population this discomfort disrupts quality of life. When that occurs, the fear becomes a phobia. Unfortunately for researchers, the extreme diversity of phobias makes them hard to study. But a doctoral candidate from Northern Illinois University may change all that with her unique new way to measure and assess fear, no matter the source.

Kathleen McCraw is the mastermind behind the Circumscribed Fear Measure (CFM) — a first of its kind method of quantifying the severity of a wide range of specific phobias. More specifically, the CFM is a series of psychological assessments and questionnaires used to arrive at a specific “measurement” of a client’s fear, regardless of the type of phobia from which he suffers.

Typically, when a psychologist suspects a patient has a phobia, she will have the client conduct self-reporting assessments. McCraw explained in a press release that the problem with this is that measurements will differ greatly depending on the fear of the patient. This makes self-assessments ineffective for making comparisons between different phobias.

“For instance, if we want to assess fears of storms or water, both of which are relatively common fears, there are no self-report measures,” McCraw said.

Her measurement tool addresses this problem and allows for the measurement of a fear of any specific object or situation, allowing for the comparison of different phobias. For example, respondents identify their most feared object or situation and state how strongly they agree or disagree with statements like: “I avoid having to face this object or situation at all costs” or “When I am faced with that object or situation, I feel faint or dizzy.”

At the moment, the CFM is the only known tool capable of comparing different types of phobias, and its possible implications are vast.

“This measure will facilitate research studies that directly compare different types of phobias,” McCraw said. “Additionally, we think therapists will be able to use the CFM to track their clients’ progress throughout therapy.”

A phobia is an irrational fear that can cause great anxiety and suffering in those it afflicts. Fear is a survival mechanism, and our ability to fear danger keeps us alive. Unfortunately for some, the fear instinct goes above and beyond and can seriously interfere with their normal functions, Medical News Today reported.

A particularly useful application for this tool is the study of phobias which run in families. Children with phobias often have fearful parents. The ability to compare the fears of children against the often different fears of their parents will help researchers to better understand and therefore better treat these conditions.