Bruce was asked to inspect some damage on the outside of a tower. Although he had developed a fear of heights, he willed himself to go up the firmly attached ladder. Halfway up, Bruce panicked, he could not move, his muscles in his legs were shaking and felt like mush. Another worker had to go up the ladder and bring Bruce down. Fear of heights is a common phobia and is usually treated with desensitization methods. A study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that taking a cortisol pill helps overcome the fear of heights.
Fear of heights
Fear of heights, called acrophobia, is a persistent, abnormal fear of heights even when people know that heights pose no real danger. Specific fears may vary. Many people with acrophobia adjust their lifestyle by avoiding flying, not going into skyscrapers, not hiking to mountain tops, or not climbing stairs. Others, wanting to break away from the limitations imposed by their fear of heights, try to overcome their acrophobia. Psychologists believe that most phobias are learned and that they can be overcome by desensitizing experiences. Desensitizing involves a gradual exposure of an individual to the source of the fear and helps the individual to feel safe and to form new memories.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released by the adrenals during difficult or stressful situations. It also effectively treats arthritis, asthma, and skin disorders. The source of cortisol in these treatments usually is cortisone or another synthesized corticosteroids. Previous studies in animals and people showed that cortisol, released during stress, can also inhibit fear memories and help create safe memories.
Diminishing fear of heights
To find out if cortisol can eliminate or diminish the fear of heights, researchers tested 40 patients with acrophobia. All subjects received therapy by exposure to a virtual reality of heights. Half of the subjects also received cortisol (20 mg) one hour before each treatment session. All individuals were assessed three to five days and one month after the end of the exposure therapy by questionnaire and by another virtual exposure to a fearful situation, during which skin conductance was measured. Fear causes increased sweating and skin conductance measures the amount of sweating. Researchers found that people, who received cortisol, showed significantly diminished fear compared to the people not receiving cortisol, as assessed by the questionnaire and skin conductance measurements. The authors of the report write: “The present findings indicate that the administration of cortisol can enhance extinction-based psychotherapy” (De Quervain, D.J.F. et al.).
These results suggest that treatment with cortisol may also help diminish other phobias and traumatic memories such as those occurring in post-traumatic stress disorder. More studies are needed to test the effect of cortisol and related drugs in people with other phobias and fear memories.
De Quervain, D.J.F. et al. Glucocorticoids enhance extinction-based psychotherapy. Proceedings National Academy of Sciences (2011) 108: 6621