Fear and phobias are the most commonly reported mental disorders in Australia. A closer look at the psychophysiology of fear is expected to lead to better treatments for anxiety-related disorders.
It is now well accepted that fear and other emotions are learned behaviours, which respond well to behavioural interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
It is therefore perplexing and frustrating to clinical psychologists and their patients when treatment success is short-lived.
Professor Ottmar Lipp is analysing the basis of exposure-based treatments – an essential part of CBT – as a start to understanding why fears re-emerge some time after successful treatment.
“The rate of relapse is significant. The current explanation is that while a regime of ‘safe’ exposure provides a new, non-threatening association to the feared stimulus, it is an additional meaning that temporarily dominates but cannot eliminate the original fear memory,” he explains.
“However, recent findings challenge this view, and this is influential because key aspects of fear are not well understood.
“We need to revisit the theories on evaluative conditioning – how stimuli acquire positive or negative meanings – and the re-consolidation of fear memories.”
Lipp has a notable record of research in the field of psychology. In 1990 he left the University of Giessen in Germany for the University of Queensland, before joining Curtin’s School of Psychology and Speech Pathology in 2014.
Lipp’s current research on anxiety is supported by the Australian Research Council as a Discovery Project, and is the first project to use the new Psychology Experimental Research Laboratories at Curtin (PERL-C). With eye-tracking instrumentation and EEG equipment for recording brain electrical activity PERL-C is an important resource for psychophysiological research.
At the laboratories, groups of participants will undergo various combinations of fear conditioning and extinction phases, involving visual and auditory stimuli, with assessments of electrodermal and startle responses providing the measures of fear learning.
Titled, ‘The extinction of human fear’, the project is important for several reasons.
Our key aims are to understand why fears re-emerge, why some types of fears are resistant to extinction training from the outset, and why irrational fears persist over time,” Lipp says.
The findings may also explain why people are less fearful in situations that statistically pose a greater risk of harm (for example, road travel) than in those that actually pose little risk, such as encounters with spiders and snakes.
Animal-based fears are more resistant to extinction than social-based fears and seem encapsulated from cognition. This suggests different learning processes for biological fears and social-based and other classes of fear,” Lipp says.
“This is basic research, but it will lead to the development of better clinical treatments for anxiety-related disorders.”