Whimsical: "Spiderman" helps with spider anxiety

Superhero film scenes reduce phobia symptoms

The object of fear: An estimated one in three women and one in five men suffers from a spider phobia. © Christina Prinn / istock
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Super Hero as a Therapist: The Spiderman films from the Marvel universe are not only entertaining - they may also be suitable for the treatment of phobias. As a study suggests, confronting short Spider-man spider scenes can ease the anxiety symptoms of spider phobics. The same applies to people who are afraid of ants: According to the researchers, a fun-filled exposure therapy with the superhero "Ant-Man" helps them.

Creepy-crawlies on eight legs cause debilitating anxiety in many people: An estimated one-third of women and one in five men have a morbid fear of spiders. Affected with this phobia feel at the sight of arthropods not only a little malaise, but veritable panic, horror and disgust. Even the idea of ​​meeting a spider can be a source of anxiety for spider phobics.

Therapy with superhero films?

But there are ways to combat this fear: In so-called exposure therapy, persons with spider phobia are repeatedly exposed to the anxiety-triggering object. The aim is to initiate a learning process that finally makes it clear to those affected that the situation is harmless.

Psychologists led by Yaakov Hoffman of the Bar-Ilan University in Israel have now tested an alternative approach: Could positive experiences with fantasy spiders also help with phobia symptoms - for example in the form of Spiderman films?

"Spiderman" takes the fear

This idea was explored by the team of 424 patients who were either suffering from spider phobia or were afraid of insects such as ants. Depending on the clinical picture, the scientists showed each of these subjects seven seconds of excerpts from the movie "Spiderman 2" or from "Ant-Man". display

The result: Exposure to the angst-triggering animals in the context of these films led to a significant alleviation of anxiety. After watching the film scenes, the phobia symptoms of the participants dropped by an average of 20 percent compared to the result before the intervention. In contrast, a control group that saw a neutral opening scene in all Marvel films did not show this improvement.

Easier to implement

This suggests to Hoffman and his colleagues that entertaining exposure therapy using superhero films could help with spider anxiety and similar phobias. The big advantage: many patients would sooner get involved in such a spider contact than in a therapy session with a living object. In addition, this form of treatment can be better implemented at home, the researchers explain - "homework" is an integral part of behavioral therapies.

Further studies must now show how well Spiderman and Co sufferers can actually be scared and how great the benefits are over established therapies. Meanwhile, Marvel fan Hoffmann is already targeting the next patient group: In the future, he wants to investigate whether superhero films could also help people with post-traumatic stress syndrome. (Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2019; doi: 10.3389 / fpsyt.2019.00309)

Source: Bar Ilan University

- Daniel Albat