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Symbolic online exposure for spider fear: Habituation of fear, disgust and physiological arousal and predictors of symptom improvement

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-05-18, 07:38 authored by Allison MatthewsAllison Matthews, Naran, N, Kenneth KirkbyKenneth Kirkby

Background and objectives: This research compared the effects of real versus hyper-real images on anxiety, disgust, and physiological arousal during internet-delivered exposure in high spider-fearfuls. Hyper-real images were digitally altered to highlight fearful aspects. A further aim was to examine self-reported and behavioural therapeutic outcomes and exposure-related predictors of these outcomes.

Methods: Twenty-eight females were randomised to real (n = 14) or hyper-real (n = 14) treatment groups and nine participants were subsequently allocated to a wait-list control group. Treatment groups viewed an 8-stage exposure hierarchy of real or hyper-real spider images. Subjective anxiety and disgust ratings were taken during each stage (0, 60, 120, 180 s) with heart rate and skin conductance recorded throughout.

Results: Anxiety, disgust and physiological arousal habituated within each exposure stage, with no differential effect of real compared to hyper-real images. Both treatment groups but not controls demonstrated significant reductions in behavioural avoidance and self-reported phobic symptoms from pre-treatment to post-treatment with large effect sizes noted. The change in within-stage habituation of anxiety, disgust and heart rate, between the first and last stage, predicted improvement in behavioural avoidance at post-treatment. This suggests that generalisation of habituation to multiple images is an important predictor of improvement.

Limitations: While findings in relation to therapeutic outcome should be considered preliminary, clear relationships were found between exposure-related variables and outcome among those who undertook treatment.

Conclusions: Findings provide evidence in support of the efficacy of online image-based exposure and have implications for informing further research into the underlying mechanisms of image-based exposure treatment.


Publication title

Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry








School of Psychological Sciences


Pergamon-Elsevier Science Ltd

Place of publication

The Boulevard, Langford Lane, Kidlington, Oxford, England, Ox5 1Gb

Rights statement

Copyright 2015 Elsevier

Repository Status

  • Open

Socio-economic Objectives

Mental health

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