“Less Is More” Lecture Dives Into New Treatment Methods for Anxiety

by Dana Hirsch


Anxiety disorders are widespread among the student population and the most popular way to treat them is by overexposing individuals to the things they are most afraid of. But what if there was another, just as effective, but less stressful way?

In his Honors Faculty Lecture “Less is More: The effects of conscious versus unconscious exposure to phobic stimuli,” WCC Professor Dr. Paul Siegel presented students with evidence that very brief exposure to phobic stimuli, too brief for the conscious mind to recognize the fearful object, opens the door to a painless treatment of anxiety disorders.

“As a clinical psychologist, I do research on fear and anxiety disorders, specifically unconscious processes,” said Dr. Siegel.

Unconscious processes are those we are not aware of but still influence our behavior.

According to Siegel, he has developed a potential new treatment of anxiety disorders over the last decade based on unconscious processes called “very brief exposure” (VBE). VBE is defined as the repeated presentation of feared images without their conscious awareness.

“I think the topic is important for college students because it enables them to learn about how scientists actually conduct experiments, about neuroimaging – which is revolutionizing our understanding of the brain and behavior, and finally about a potential new treatment to reduce fear,” – Dr. Paul Siegel, WCC Professor

“VBE is a twist on the prevailing treatment of Anxiety Disorders – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which is stressful because it requires people to directly confront their feared situation,” said Dr. Siegel. “With the help of WCC Honor students, I have conducted number of studies which have shown that VBE to images of spiders reduces phobic persons’ avoidance of a live tarantula. In my talk I presented studies showing that VBE reduced avoidance of the tarantula more than clearly visible exposure (CVE) to same stimuli (i.e., conscious exposure), and that VBE activated fear processing and emotion regulation regions in the brain more than CVE.”

According to Dr. Siegel, WCC students who participated in these studies were part of a summer internship ran by him.

“For eight weeks each summer, I mentor a group of three or four WCC students on designing and conducting an original psychology experiment in a human-subjects laboratory,” Dr. Siegel said. “I intensively mentor the students both individually and as a research team.”

Students were expected to conduct a literature review, recruit and identify human participants representative of a specific population, use psychology experiment software and equipment, master a study protocol, as well as collect and analyze data. At the end of the internship, students presented their findings at a professional conference.

“The internship earned an Innovation of the Year Award from the League of Innovation of Community College,” Dr. Siegel said.

“I think the topic is important for college students because it enables them to learn about how scientists actually conduct experiments, about neuroimaging – which is revolutionizing our understanding of the brain and behavior, and finally about a potential new treatment to reduce fear,” Dr. Siegel said. “Fear-related problems are the most common behavioral difficulties among college students.”

By bringing this lecture to the college, faculty can show students the value of their mentorship and contribute to the WCC community, according to Dr. Siegel.

“Faculty mentoring of students on actual scientific research has been shown to be one of the highest impact practices on college campuses,” Dr. Siegel said. “I categorically reject the idea, advanced by some administrators and faculty, that faculty scholarship is less important at a community college. It is more important. Learning how to think in various ways, such as by the scientific method, cannot really be learned from books.”

According to Dr. Siegel, students benefit from actually seeing faculty think, talk about their research, and showing them how to do it.

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