Desynchrony of fear in phobic exposure

M. A. van Duinen*, K. R. J. Schruers, E. J. L. Griez

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Intuitively, phobic exposure would seem to be a very stressful experience. However, it is not clear whether the characteristic feature of a classic stress response, activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, is present in phobic fear. Some instances of phobic fear have been found to be accompanied by robust increases in cortisol, whereas in other instances a dissociation between subjective-behavioural arousal and the HPA-axis has been found. The latter is referred to as desynchrony of fear. The aim of the current study was to test the hypothesis that phobic fear is similar to normal fear and, as such, is accompanied by a robust increase in cortisol values. In all, 16 spider phobic subjects and 16 healthy controls participated in the study. During and following a standardised stepwise exposure paradigm, saliva samples were collected for cortisol determination. In contrast to the controls, the spider phobics reacted with a strong fear reaction to the spiders. However, cortisol levels remained unaffected. The phobic response did not resemble the classic 'fight or flight' response. Some suggest that the HPA-axis response has become extinguished in modern man. Yet, it is possible that phobic fear is not a derivative of an ancient fear but rather a separate entity that relies on other neuroendocrinological systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)695-699
JournalJournal of Psychopharmacology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2010


  • cortisol
  • desynchrony of fear
  • exposure
  • HPA-axis
  • spider phobia
  • stress


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