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The Adverse Effect of Hormonal Contraceptive Use on Exposure Therapy Benefit

A new Research Paper about the negative psychological impact of hormonal contraceptive was published by a research team around Friederike Raeder (Postdoc A13), Franziska Heidemann (PhD student A13), Manfred Schedlowski (Project Leader A18) , Jürgen Margraf (Project Leader A13) and Armin Zlomuzica (Project Leader A13).

Hormonal contraceptive use can aggravate existing symptoms of anxiety and depression and influence the response to pharmacologic treatment.

The impact of hormonal contraceptive use on non-pharmacological treatment efficacy in anxiety disorders is less well explored. Oral contraceptives, which suppress endogenous sex hormone secretion, can alter fear extinction learning. Fear extinction is considered the laboratory proxy of exposure therapy in anxiety disorders. This study set out to examine whether oral contraceptive use is related to exposure-based treatment response in specific phobia.

The research team recruited spider-phobic women (n = 28) using oral contraceptives (OC) and free-cycling women (n =26, No-OC). All participants were subjected to an identical in-vivo exposure. Exposure-based symptom improvement was assessed with several behavioral and subjective indices at pre-treatment, post-treatment and six-weeks follow-up. No–OC women showed higher pre-exposure fear levels on the FSQ and SPQ. OC women showed slightly less pronounced exposure benefit compared to their free-cycling counterparts (No-OC woman) as reflected by lower levels of fear reduction from pre-treatment to follow-up on the subjective level.

After correction for multiple testing, OC and No-OC women showed differences in self-report measures (SPQ, FAS and SBQ) from pre- to follow-up treatment but not from pre-to post-treatment. These findings implicate that oral contraceptive use can account for differential exposure-based fear symptom improvement.

The study highlights the importance of monitoring and managing hormonal contraceptives use in the context of non-pharmacological exposure-based interventions.

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