A friend of mine was driving along a freeway one dark and stormy night when she was overcome by a fear that forced her off the highway. Except for the pounding rain, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Still she was so upset, she asked the friend with her to drive them home. She’d suffered a panic attack, her first, triggered by an unknown event. When she told me her story, I urged her to get counseling. Panic attacks don’t usually go away by themselves. Instead, they grow into phobias that can take over a person’s life. The human response is to avoid the experience associated with the anxiety. But, untreated, the fear can grow and associate itself with other activities until staying at home can seem the only safe option, a condition known as agoraphobia.
Drugs exist to deal with phobias, though recently, Alzheimer’s research has brought some of them under suspicion. Psychotherapy is another form of treatment. Unfortunately, years can pass before the reason for the attack is uncovered. Even then, knowing the reason doesn’t necessarily affect a cure.
Not surprising, some doctors have thrown out psychotherapy in favor of aversion therapy, which is quicker. If someone is afraid of clowns, for example, the patient gets exposed to them in slow measures, over time. Unfortunately, facing one’s fear to cure that fear is difficult and not always effective, either.
Merel Klindt, a professor of clinical psychology, working in her laboratory in Amsterdam, has created a pill, which taken once, may permanently eliminate an anxiety. “The Cure For Fear,” by Ben Crair, New Republic, June 2016, pgs. 30-37.) Anxiety overwhelms us when too much adrenaline gets released as we form an unpleasant memory.(Ibid pg. 34) Klindt’s pill, taken at the right moment, can reconfigure the response. The right moment occurs during a period of “reconsolidation”: when an old memory is retrieved and a new one formed. Klindt’s medication can interrupt the relived memory and replace it with one devoid of anxiety. (Ibid pg. 36)
As good as that sounds, the treatment has its limits. The effect isn’t transferable. A person who dreads standing on high balconies can cure that specific fear, but he or she may retain a dread of other high places. (Ibid pg 33) Regrettably, people with PTSD aren’t as responsive to pharmacological rewriting as those with simple phobias. Their fear is too complex, though the treatment can offer some relief. (Ibid 34)
Fear, like pain, has a positive role to play in our lives. But when our responses become too debilitating, Klindt’s pill may offer a life saving alternative.