Research

Meet Peter the tarantula

Conquer your fears at the Durfpoli


At the Durfpoli, Rachel de Jong makes children face their fears until they’re no longer afraid. ‘If you keep avoiding what you’re afraid of, you’ll never get over it.’
By Tamara Uildriks / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photoos by Felipe Silva

 

Peter

Rachel de Jong retrieves a hairy tarantula from a small container and puts it on the table near me. ‘This is Peter’, she says, ‘he’s named after the head of our department.’ She smiles. ‘You could come see him later if you miss him. He usually lives in my office at the Heymans building.’

The psychologist has no issues handling her eight-legged pet. ‘I was never afraid of Peter. I’ve never been afraid of any of the animals in our clinic. Although I’m not too fond of working with the wasps.’

De Jong is doing a PhD in clinical psychology. To aid in her research, she founded the Durfpoli (fear clinic). Together with cognitive behavioural therapists, she’s helping children and young people overcome their fears. ‘Most studies into fear has been done with adults. We want to find out how we can improve treating fear in children.’

The clinic opened its doors in the summer of 2017. ‘We needed a way to reach children and young people for our research.’ Together with youth mental health organisation Accare, the researchers set up a clinic where children can attend free sessions. Since then, Accare has also set up clinics in the cities of Leeuwarden, Drachten, and Smilde.

‘Some people come all the way from Almere to our clinic. We’re the first institution in the Netherlands specialising in treating specific fears, so they expect a lot from us.’

Examples

As children grow up, anxiety can become a real problem. Approximately ten percent of children thirteen years or older suffers from an anxiety disorder, which can impact their daily life. ‘The most common fear is of dogs. Children who are afraid of dogs don’t want to go to friends’ houses where there are dogs, and they’re even afraid in the school yard if there are dogs there who aren’t on a leash.’

The clinic offers treatment for a long list of fears. Many of these involve animals, but some children are afraid of escalators, amputees, or loud noises. De Jong finds the peculiar fears the most interesting. ‘The other day we had someone who was afraid of fruit. I can’t quite imagine why someone would have that fear, so finding out where it comes from is fascinating.’

Inhibitory learning

The therapy the clinic provides is based on the theory of inhibitory learning. ‘According to this theory, fear is caused by an association in your mind: you see a dog and associate it with being bitten, for example. You can change this by teaching yourself that association is incorrect, by petting a dog and seeing it doesn’t bite.’

It’s very important that people expose themselves repeatedly. ‘The repetition reinforces a link between dogs and not being bitten, ultimately replacing the old link.’

During treatment, each child must confront fear head on. ‘We ask children who are afraid of the dark to turn off their night lights, or to spend five minutes at a time in a dark bathroom.’

Research

During the treatments, the experts gather data for their research. ‘We want to know if there’s a difference between children doing the therapy here or at home, with or without their parents’ help’, De Jong says.

Her study into fears in young people differs from the one involving children: ‘We want to find out whether advancing towards your goal in small steps or in leaps and bounds makes a difference in the end result. Going too fast could scare people off, but if it works it could save time.’

The therapists always take their time when it’s needed, though. ‘The sessions can be pretty hard on the children. They’re suddenly asked to think and talk about and interact with the one thing they’re always trying to avoid.’

Results

De Jong has noticed a clear difference in children before and after treatment. ‘Most of them are less afraid, which in turn makes them happier. They are more carefree, because they’re not distracted by their fears anymore. And all it takes is a couple of weeks of treatment.’

The positive results aren’t always permanent, though: ‘Approximately sixty percent of children overcome their fears after the therapy, but some of them do suffer a setback. We’re trying to improve the sessions so children can be rid of their fears for the rest of their lives.’

The Durfpoli is still looking for children and young people to aid in their research. You can find more information at www.durfpoli.nl.

Arachnophobia

Ignoring your fears means you’ll never conquer them. I’m terrified of spiders and have been actively ignoring the spider living in a corner of my room in hopes that he’ll move on his own. In an effort to change things, I’ve come to the clinic today to meet Peter the tarantula.

Before De Jong introduces us, she wants to know a little bit more about my fear. Obviously, I know it’s completely irrational. ‘Spiders are more afraid of you than you are of them’, I often tell myself. Nevertheless, I still think they’re gross and scary.

‘I’m afraid they’ll touch me or end up in my hair’, I write down in the workbook I’ve been given at the clinic. When asked how high I think the chances are of that happening, I estimate forty percent: a reasonable chance. When asked how horrible I would find the experience, I grade it with an eight out of ten.

De Jong and I create a step-by-step plan to face my fears, from walking around with Peter in a jar, to finally having Peter on my hand. In the meantime, De Jong tells me more about the tarantula: ‘His diet consists of crickets. As far as he’s concerned, you’re just a plant or a branch.’

Seeing how calm she is with Peter relaxes me, and half an hour later, I’m walking around the room with Peter on my hand. I’ve reached my goal for the day! The next step is evicting that spider from my room.

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