Spiders are just about as unlike humans as it is possible to be. They have eight eyes, eight legs, skeletons on the outside of their bodies, and fangs that can penetrate the skin and inject venom. It shouldn’t be too surprising that many people are afraid of spiders despite the fact that most spiders are tiny, delicate creatures that are not capable of killing or even harming animals of our size. When a person’s fear of spiders becomes so disproportionate to the actual threat that it impairs life functioning and daily activities it is called arachnophobia.
This article will help distinguish between a general, common dislike for spiders and true arachnophobia. It will also explain theories behind arachnophobia and general fear of spiders, and what you can do about it if you are arachnophobic.
Arachnophobia vs. General Dislike
Being afraid of spiders isn't necessarily a phobia. Phobias are extremely severe fears that cause some form of impairment in a person’s quality of life. Many people jump if a spider is on them, but to truly suffer from arachnophobia, just jumping upon unwanted contact would not be the full reaction.
If you are a true arachnophobic, your fear of spiders reflects the following features of a specific phobia, as established by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM:
- Persistent and Excessive Fear You probably don’t just grimace when you see an eight-legged creepy crawler every once in a while, but instead climb onto the nearest and tallest item of furniture and yell for help if someone even suggests that there might be a spider nearby. Both the presence and the anticipation or potential presence of spiders causes you to enter a state of panic, which can include a rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, screaming, or crying. Your fear response may also be triggered by webs, or even realistic pictures of spiders.
- Immediate Fear Response As far as you are concerned, a spider in the near vicinity, such as on the wall across the room, is just about as terrifying as a spider in your hair— you don’t have to wait for it to appear there to freak out. When you notice a spider or even suspect you might see one, your fear and panic are likely to be immediate. However, in some arachnophobes, the presence or perceived presence of a spider only sometimes but not always provokes a panic attack. This is known as the difference between a situationally bound and a situationally predisposed phobic reaction. These people are more likely to experience a severe fear response if they feel “trapped” with the spider such as being in a house with a spider rather than being outside and seeing a spider web across the street.
- Awareness that the Fear is Excessive If you are an adult, you probably know that common spiders can’t hurt you, and that moreover, they wouldn’t want to even if they could because you could crush them in an instant if you wanted to. However, this awareness is not enough to keep you from feeling intense and overwhelming fear. On the other hand, arachnophobic children may not realize that their fear is excessive.
- Avoidance of Spiders that Interferes with Functioning You avoid spiders at all costs, even if it means spending hours cleaning or sleeping at a friend’s house if you see a spider where you live, or avoiding the outdoors or your basement because you may run into one. It may interfere with how you spend your time, affect your relationships or ability to work or become a psychological burden.
Also, your fear response must not be merely a symptom related to another disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD (for example, the compulsion to keep your house clean and spider-free), or panic disorder (panic attacks that frequently occur in response to various unrelated stimuli). You must have been afraid of spiders to an extreme degree for least six months for you to be considered arachnophobic.
Why Do We Fear Spiders?
While there is no single cause of arachnophobia, there are several theories as to why it may develop.
One theory is based on evolutionary psychology and posits that because our ancestors feared spiders, we do too. After all, our early ancestors may have increased their ability to survive by avoiding spiders as some are venomous; this gives the arachnophobic individual a possible evolutionary advantage. Also, people living in the Dark Ages believed that spiders contaminated food and water (though this was not true), which may have led us to associate them with mortal dangers such as starvation and death.
Another theory is that the fear of spiders is culturally dependant. In some cultures, spiders are widely feared, whereas in others they are a dietary staple.
Also, as is the case with many phobias, arachnophobia may also simply be due to the way you were raised—for example, if you had a parent or other relative who was arachnophobic witnessing their fear response may have taught you that spiders were a cause for alarm. Interestingly, much of this is picked up through visual learning. Your parents may not have taught you to fear spiders, but when you witnessed their fear, you started to fear it too.
How to Defeat Your Spider Phobia at Home
Arachnophobia is usually treated via systematic desensitization, also known as exposure therapy. Systematic desensitization involves repeatedly exposing a person to the object of their fear in a safe and controlled manner. You may wish to enlist the help of a mental health professional when trying these techniques at home.
To expose yourself to spiders in a safe and controlled manner, it is a good idea to prepare yourself via relaxation techniques, and by addressing and changing any negative beliefs and thought patterns that may be increasing your fear experience.
Relaxation techniques you can use include controlled breathing, self-hypnosis, and visualization routines that put you in a calm, relaxed state.
You can figure out what negative beliefs and thought patterns might be making your anxiety worse by writing about your fear of spiders. By writing out your thoughts on spiders, you can pick out specific beliefs and repeating thoughts that are untrue or non-useful and replace them with more positive beliefs and thought patterns, and practice running those positive beliefs and thought patterns through your head as you imagine seeing a spider.
Once you have prepared yourself, you can practice “exposing” yourself to spiders by starting with just thinking about spiders until the thought no longer causes extreme distress. Once you have mastered thinking about spiders without experiencing a phobic fear response you can graduate to looking at pictures of spiders, then videos of spiders, looking at spiders behind glass, and finally looking at and even possibly interacting with spiders up close with no barrier between you and the spider.
The key is commitment. Start at the first step and continue it repeatedly until the fear goes away. Only once it's gone away, move to the second step. It can take hours to days, but over time that fear will decrease. Remember, spiders are not nearly as dangerous as you thought (only about four are fatal in the world, and most people survive the bites without help – though getting help is still a good idea).