Studies have shown that 1/3 of human adults suffer from ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes, making it the most common of known phobias. In many cultures, snakes are associated with evil, death, and the end of the world.
This article will provide information about how ophidiophobia is diagnosed, discuss the theories as to the causes of the phobia, and describe classic therapeutic techniques for treating phobias that you can perform yourself.
Symptoms of the Snake Phobia
Even though 1/3rd of the US fears snakes, that number is exacerbated by those that fear them only a little. It's a severe fear that requires treatment.
The American Psychiatric Association’s most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a phobia as having the following symptoms, paraphrased here and explained regarding the fear of snakes.
- Persistent and Excessive Fear An ophidiophobic may feel anxiety due to either the presence or the anticipation of a snake. Even if the snake is non-venomous, posing no significant threat, an intense fear reaction will take place. In extreme cases, photographs of snakes can be enough to trigger anxiety for a person with this disorder.
- Immediate Anxiety Response The appearance or anticipation of a snake’s presence will instantly cause a state of anxiety in most cases. Panic attacks may ensue in either many or all cases.
- Recognition that Fear is Excessive Most adults with this disorder will recognize that a fear of snakes intense enough to cause panic attacks at the mere sight or expectation of a snake’s presence is an excessive fear. In children with ophidiophobia, this feature may be absent.
- Avoidance of Snakes Contact with snakes will be avoided at all costs. Ophidiophobics may even find it necessary to avoid places where snakes are kept confined, such as zoos or the houses of friends who have or buy snakes as pets, thereby interfering with their lives. Fortunately for many ophidiophobics, wild snakes do not spend much time around people if they can help it, though in places where snake populations are high it can be difficult for ophidiophobics to go outside.
What Causes Ophidiophobia?
Ophidiophobia is an anxiety disorder known as a specific phobia. Specific phobias, particularly animal phobias, are thought to develop largely during childhood and may be caused by three separate possible issues: personal, witnessed, or impersonal/learned.
- Personal: A personal fear experience with snakes might involve accidentally stepping on a snake and being bitten, hissed at or otherwise threatened.
- Witnessed: A witnessed fear experience is usually something that happens to a friend or family member. Seeing a loved one threatened or hurt by a snake can be emotionally traumatic and cause snakes to be associated with intense fear for many years afterward.
- Impersonal/Learned: An impersonal/learned fear experience might include hearing about the dangers of snakes through media such as television or radio reports, or through an ophidiophobic family member while growing up.
In addition to these experiences as factors in ophidiophobia, evolutionary psychologists have theorized that the phobia may also be a partially genetic trait. They believe that fear and a careful avoidance of snakes – which could be poisonous (historically there would be no records or teachers or research to help humans tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous) - would have helped humans to survive long enough to reproduce.
How Ophidiophobia Is Treated
If you are someone who finds that ophidiophobia interferes with your life in ways you would rather not have to deal with, you may want to look into cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT. CBT is the type of therapy most commonly used to treat specific phobias such as snake phobia. It involves several different types of treatment for overcoming phobic reactions, each of which can be reproduced in your own home. CBT treatments and ways in which you can replicate them are detailed below.
- Exposure Therapy Exposure therapy is precisely what it sounds like—namely, exposing yourself to a snake, but in a safe and controlled environment. You don’t want to go out into the wild looking for one. Starting out small, with a toy snake or a picture of a snake, can help you work up to exposing yourself to a real live snake, which you can encounter at your local zoo or pet store. The idea behind exposure therapy is that after multiple exposures in which you focus on keeping calm and noticing that you are not being harmed, your brain will learn that extreme fear and anxiety responses are unnecessary in the presence of snakes.
- Cognitive Restructuring Cognitive restructuring entails identifying the negative and false beliefs and thought patterns that underlie your fear of snakes. An example might be the idea that snakes are slimy, or that they like to kill humans. Writing about your fear of snakes, or taking the time to meditate upon it and question yourself as to the reasons behind your fear, are good ways of identifying the specific beliefs and thought patterns that escalate your stress. Once you have identified them, you can directly address them by discovering whether or not they are based in objectivity and replacing them with true, positive beliefs and thought patterns that will decrease rather than increase your levels of fear next time you encounter a snake.
- Relaxation Training Relaxation training has the purpose of providing you with the abilities and techniques you need to relax when faced by the object of your fear. These techniques may include but are not limited to visualization routines, controlled breathing exercises, counting exercises, and positive affirmations. You can spend some time Googling these for ideas, create your unique techniques that work best for you, or join a meditation group. Meditation is an activity that allows you to practice achieving both mental and physical tranquility at will.
Even if snakes are not a big part of your life, overcoming your ophidiophobia will allow you to enjoy and appreciate the creature that has fascinated and terrified the world for centuries, without allowing it to terrify you any longer.