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Grad student saluted for work on animal phobias

June 23, 2008

KALAMAZOO--A graduate student at Western Michigan University has won a national award for his work on the treatment of animal phobias.

Richard Seim, a doctoral student in clinical psychology, was recognized for his research at the recent convention of the Association for Psychological Science in Chicago. Seim's poster, titled "The Efficacy of Brief Exposure Durations in the Treatment of Animal Phobias," was selected as the Outstanding Student Poster by the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology.

Seim has conducted his research in collaboration with his faculty mentor, Dr. C. Richard Spates, WMU professor of psychology. Their studies show that a series of brief exposure trials can reduce fear responses in adults with animal phobias.

Prior to Seim's research, it had been assumed that prolonged exposure to feared objects was necessary to reduce anxiety in people with phobias. It is hoped that brief exposure techniques might reduce dropouts associated with therapies that require prolonged exposure to feared objects.

Animal phobias are among the most common specific phobias, occurring in about 10 percent of the general population. They are the most common specific phobia for women and the second most common specific phobia for men. They occur at a rate for women about twice that for men.

Most adults who are phobic of animals have had their fear for many years, on average about 16 years, based on studies in the Anxiety Disorders Laboratory at WMU. Previous studies addressing the treatment of animal phobias in Spates' laboratory have demonstrated that it is possible to eliminate the fear within a single, three-hour treatment protocol much like that used by Seim. But those studies used a standard treatment that involves prolonged and continuous exposure to the feared animal. Seim's investigation was among the first of several studies to investigate whether brief, repeated exposures would lead to the same outcome, but with fewer dropouts, as is common in many standard exposure treatments. So far the data is holding up, according to an evolving theory being developed in the WMU Anxiety Disorders Laboratory.

In a recent survey of nearly 1,000 WMU students who had specific phobias, Seim found the most prevalent fears, both in terms of total sum and severity, were fears of spiders (114 people, with 14 percent reporting severe fear) followed by fears of public speaking (91 people with 11.2 percent reporting severe fear). The next most prevalent were fears of injections (57 people), fear of heights (48), fear of snakes (46) and a fear of enclosed spaces (38).

Seim has distinguished himself through his work with "dosed exposure" treatments not only of small animal phobias but its use with injection phobia, emetophobia (fear of vomiting) and several other unique fear conditions.

"Richard is well deserving of this award and recognition, and anxiety disorders will be a likely specialization as he continues his career as an academic in clinical psychology," Spates says. "He will no doubt make continuing significant contributions to the field."

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

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