Arachnophobia: Definition, Diagnosis, Treatment

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This article deals with the common phobia of spiders. It gives a description of arachnophobia, possible causes, and tips on how to overcome the fear.

What is arachnophobia? Technically, arachnophobia is an intense fear of any arachnid. This can include scorpions, ticks, mites, and other eight-legged insects, but the most common arachnid feared is a spider. Because of this, it is common to view arachnophobia specifically as a fear of spiders. It is estimated that around 55% of females and 18% of males are arachnophobic. The characteristics and fears that an arachnophobic portrays vary in actions and severity; however, almost all of the traits may seem to be irrational to another person who does not suffer from arachnophobia. The arachnophobic is oftentimes embarrassed of their behavior but is unable to stop.

Arachnophobia ranges from mild to severe. In most cases, arachnophobics are constantly searching their surrounding areas for possible spiders. If they have previously seen a spider in a certain area, they will always scour the place to make sure there are no more spiders around. When they encounter a spider, many arachnophobics are seized by a sudden terror—oftentimes leading to a full blown panic attack. In the more severe cases, arachnophobics will also become afraid of a drawing or any other fake representation of a spider (a stuffed animal or picture on TV, for example).

Arachnophobia: Where Does It Come From?

The development of arachnophobia is unknown. There are many different theories, most based on evolution, but there are discrepancies. For example, it was proposed that perhaps our ancestors learned to avoid venomous spiders. However, although almost all spiders are poisonous, it is only a few spiders that have enough venom to cause damage to a human being. Therefore, it wouldn’t make sense evolutionarily to have feared them solely because of their poison.

Our ancestors also learned to fear sizeable predators, but again most spiders are incredibly small and hard to spot, so they wouldn’t have looked like a threat to survival. Studies have been done for other common fears—bees and snakes, for instance—to try and relate either the poisonous bite or size theories to other documented phobias, but most people were more afraid of spiders than other pictures they were shown, despite the fact that many of the photos were of species that cause more harm to humans.

Is Arachnophobia Genetic?

Despite the lack of a cause, scientists did a study with crickets showing that their may be a genetic link to arachnophobia. In the study, they had two groups of crickets. The control group had mothers that laid their eggs without the presence of a spider. The other group, however, laid their eggs in a terrarium that contained a wolf spider (the spider had wax over its fangs to prevent it from eating the crickets before the experiment was conducted). The findings from this study were intriguing, to say the least. Crickets that were born from a mother who had encountered the spider were more cautious than the control group.

In fact, they were 113% more likely to look for shelter and stay hidden once they found it. They were also more wary of spider related objects—spider silk or feces, for example—and immediately froze when they encountered these markers. Because of their fear, crickets whose mothers had encountered the wolf spiders overall had a better survival rate. The study was also repeated in the wild with similar results. Although this study had many interesting findings, it’s still not clear whether this indeed was a genetic trait, or how the mothers passed on the fear. It was suggested by one scientist that the fear of the wolf spider triggers a release of a hormone, but there is still much work to be done on the subject.

It has also been suggested that arachnophobia may be innate. In 2008, a study was done with both adults and children, where each subject was shown a variety of pictures. These included spiders and snakes along with less threatening objects like flowers or caterpillars. Both adults and children were quicker at identifying the threatening images than the non-threatening ones.

One problem with this study however, is that many cultures, especially in the Eastern world, do not have the same fear as the Western counterpart. There are many countries that consume spiders, believing they are a tasty delicacy full of nutrients. Because of this, it has been suggested that the fear is culturally constructed. The discrepancies between the study and the use of spiders as food lead back to square one. Regardless, arachnophobia is still one of the most common phobias, no matter its origin.


Arachnophobia: Can It Be Cured?

There are a couple different ways of trying to ‘cure’ arachnophobia, although there have been mixed results. The most important thing about trying to get over the fear is—like most other fears or addictions—the person should want to overcome the problem. If another person forces them to face the fear or interferes with the process, it will fail. The most common way of overcoming arachnophobia is the process of desensitization.

There are many steps to desensitizing yourself to spiders, and each individual is different. As it is a phobia, it will take time to decrease the fear, and there may be setbacks. Don’t get discouraged. It is helpful to tell someone you trust about your decision to overcome your fear so that they can give you support.

First thing first: you need to realize that spiders are in this world, and they are going to stay here. Realizing that they will never go away and actually help control the populations of other annoying insects is a big step. Another important thing to realize is that just because you hate spiders, doesn’t mean they hate you. They are not waiting for you so they can attack you, they don’t want to sabotage you, and they don’t enjoy watching you have a panic attack. When they’re in your house or near you, it’s nothing more than a coincidence.

It’s important—for everyone, but especially arachnophobics—to educate themselves on the different types of spiders. Research what spiders are common to the area you live in, and what spiders may be dangerous to humans. Look at pictures so that when you do come across a spider you will know if it is dangerous or not.

The actual desensitization part is where many arachnophobics have the most difficulty. If you have a severe case, it’s best to start off with images or TV shows to help calm your fear. Read a children’s book with a spider as a character, or find a show that depicts one in a friendly manner. Remember that spiders are not trying to hurt you, and continue looking at these images until you are comfortable being close to them or even touching the picture. Using a stuffed animal also works well, as it is three-dimensional and therefore a bit more lifelike.

Finally, when you see a spider on the wall, do not run away. Instead, look at it until you calm down and the adrenaline rush is over. When you feel in control, take one step towards the spider and repeat. This may take a while to overcome the feelings of panic and fear, especially the closer you get. Keep reminding yourself that it is not going to jump on you or try to harm you as you walk towards it. When you’re close enough, either try to scare it away or kill it.

Again, don’t get discouraged if this step takes a while or you are unable to move closer to the spider. Arachnophobia—any phobia—is extremely difficult to overcome and it will take time, and you will experience some failures. Also realize that when you do finally manage to get close enough to kill it, this doesn’t mean that you will no longer be afraid of spiders. There is a good chance that you will always feel afraid. These steps help you overcome and deal with the fear, they don’t remove it. Spiders are here to stay, as are you, and the ‘cure’ to arachnophobia simply helps you be able to live your life a bit easier when dealing with these eight legged creatures.


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