Cortisol May Be an Anxiety Treatment

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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

There’s a nice article available today describing preliminary use of the hormone Cortisol as a ‘treatment’ for phobias. Essentially, researchers working in Switzerland were able to show that phobic patient’s fears declined over time upon repeated exposure to the objects of their fear when they had been given a shot of the hormone Cortisol an hour before vs. when they didn’t have any Cortisol shot. Cortisol is a naturally occuring hormone (a chemical messenger inside the body) that is associated with the stress and anxiety response. Cortisol is known to affect memory, typically by making it harder to retrieve emotionally charged memories. The researchers theorized that by increasing cortisol in the bodies and brains of phobic patients before they had reason to be anxious, they would block retrieval of phobic memories, thereby taking the teeth out of such memories to some extent. If they are right, it might be possible to do a sort of progressive desensitization on phobic patients, pairing an advance Cortisol shot with the feared objects so as to lessen patients’ phobic responses over time. This type of progressive desensitization is already in wide-spread use in psychologists’ offices, where relaxation techniques are paired with phobic triggers and objects. The psychological technique works very well and is long lasting, but it would be very nice to be able to have a less labor intensive means of performing the same sort of desensitization. Of course this sort of treatment would only be worthwhile to the extent that it lasted beyond the time period during which the drug Cortisol was being administered. If the drug only blocks retrieval of phobic memories (rather than breaking them down), we might expect the effect of this treatment to be short lived, which would make it a rather worthless exercize.

Several other drugs are widely used in the treatment of phobic anxiety. Specifically, the beta-blocker Propranolol is sometimes prescribed for people with social phobias such as fear of speaking in front of an audience. Propranolol is thought to have its effect by blocking awareness of sensory signals that might suggest anxiety coming from the body (such as trembling, an increased heart rate or muscle tension). If you don’t notice that you’re getting anxious, so the idea goes, you won’t. And Propranolol does work for this purpose, but only on a temporary basis.

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