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Phobia and Disgust

By Josh Halpren

Alanna Covington

(Photo: Josh Halpren)

Alanna Covington looks at phobia and sees something beyond fear. “We assume that phobia is just about the fear of something,” says the second-year psychology master’s student, “but it goes beyond that. There is an element of disgust that we are trying to understand.”

Covington’s current research attempts to help those suffering from blood-injection-injury phobia, or BII, a fear of blood, injections, and other related medical procedures. Covington and her fellow researchers in the Psychology Department’s Anxiety Disorders Research lab, supervised by Professor Michele Carter, want to understand how much of this aversion comes from fear, and how much comes from legitimate disgust.

“There are many individuals who find themselves not getting the vaccinations they need or other blood tests and shots that would make them healthier like a flu shot because they are incredibly averse to any medical procedures,” says Covington. “This is a serious issue because it keeps people from receiving treatments that can improve their quality of life.”

To further understand the connection between disgust and BII, Covington and her fellow researchers have set up a series of trials designed to expose BII sufferers to disgusting stimuli. Covington’s research comes as a follow-up to that of her colleague Natalie Rusch. While Rusch tests the results of exposing participants to stimuli meant to elicit disgust, Covington looks at the participants a week later to understand how this exposure has changed their perceptions of blood, injections, and injuries. While participants may react well to exposure in the moment, Covington seeks to understand if this has any lasting effect.

“This has the potential to be a very effective treatment for individuals with BII phobia that can help them to live healthier lives,” says Covington. “Many of these individuals want to be able to do things such as donate blood, but aren’t able to due to their phobia.”

Covington says breaking down these phobias also removes a significant amount of pressure from individuals’ bodies. “Our body can’t sustain heightened anxiety for long,” she says. “Through exposure we believe that we can break down maladaptive patterns of fear and disgust and help people to create new patterns.”

Covington plans to continue her work in the anxiety disorders lab throughout the year and complete her master’s degree in spring of 2013 before moving on to pursue a doctoral degree. “I love the fact that through psychology I can help people and learn at the same time,” says Covington. “Our research has real potential to allow individuals with BII and other phobias to lead easier, healthier lives.”