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Grad student on TV show about animal phobias

April 20, 2010

KALAMAZOO--A Western Michigan University graduate student will be featured on an upcoming episode of "Weird, True and Freaky" about animal phobias on Animal Planet.

Richard Seim, a doctoral student in clinical psychology who researches animal phobia treatments in WMU's Anxiety Disorders Laboratory, will be shown talking about his work on the show, which is scheduled to air on at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, April 22. The show had been set to air early this year, but was rescheduled.

A production crew came to the WMU campus last summer to interview Seim, who works under the direction of his faculty advisor, Dr. C. Richard Spates, WMU professor of psychology and anxiety disorders expert.

"I felt a little flattered, because I'm only a Ph.D. student," Seim says. "But they heard about some of my work and they wanted to feature me as one of their expert commentators."

Under Spates' tutelage, Seim has received recognition for his animal phobia research. In 2008, he won a national award from the Society for the Science of Clinical Psychology for a poster outlining the efficacy of a novel form of therapy for the treatment for snake and spider fears.

For the show, Seim answered questions about how people develop animal phobias and how best to treat them. The crew then shot about a half-hour of film showing how the therapy works.

Being interviewed for national television turned the tables on Seim, who is used to putting other people to the test.

"It was quite intimidating, honestly," Seim says. "I am confident in my abilities, but as soon as they put that camera in front of me, I experienced a little stage fright. But it was fun."

Seim is from Austin, Texas, and came to WMU after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin specifically to work with Spates, who is considered a national leader in research on how to treat animal phobias and other anxiety disorders.

"I came to Kalamazoo with the goal of following in his footsteps," Seim says. "I eventually would like to become a professor, studying the nature of anxiety disorders and how they can be most effectively treated.”

Seim states that anxiety is a common problem. Many veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, while 2 percent of people suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, 3 percent suffer from social anxiety disorder, and another 8 percent suffer from some type of phobia, such as height phobia or claustrophobia.

"Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety on a daily basis," he says. "But I am interested in how normal, non-pathological anxiety can escalate into a problem which greatly interferes with a person’s life.”

Seim and Spates' research shows people can be effectively treated for phobias, not just of animals, but also fears of needles, public speaking and even vomiting in public.

"Unlike many other anxiety disorders, phobias can typically be treated in about two to four hours," Seim says. "I have worked with people who have suffered from phobias for over 17 years, and after only a few hours of therapy, they can face some of their biggest fears without distress."

With the dosed exposure therapy that Spates has developed with the help of graduate students like Seim, patients can be treated in a less threatening manner.

"Using this technique, we can prevent feelings of panic," Seim says. "Patients can stay in treatment longer and take on more challenges. At the end of the treatment, most patients can even hold a spider in their hands."

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Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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