Incy Wincy Spider Phobia
With Halloween just days away, you may have noticed an abundance of webbed decorations springing up around the capital. Whilst for many of us this is a time to have some fun, don our most creative and scary costumes, and indulge in an abundance of sweet treats, for some of us, this is a time when we are confronted with our worst fears.
Many of us share a dislike towards spiders and would rather these creepy crawlies did not set up camp in our homes, and it’s likely that we can thank our evolutionary ancestors for instilling this primal ‘fight, flight’ instinct in us. Once upon a time, this biologically predetermined response would have promoted our survival against deadly predators. However, in the UK, our 8-legged invertebrate friends are in fact not aggressive towards humans, and really are more scared of us! In fact, we are more likely to be killed by a champagne cork than bitten by a spider…
What is Arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia is a specific phobia of spiders, and it is one of the most common phobias globally. It is estimated to affect between 18-45% of the UK population, and scaremongering across the media, film industry and social media has likely contributed in part to this.
The symptoms of arachnophobia include significant fear that is elicited by the actual, perceived or imagined presence of a spider, which is recognised as disproportionate, and is paired with the arousal of physical symptoms of anxiety including a racing heart, shaking, sweating and so on. Understandably, arachnophobes will commonly engage in active attempts to avoid or escape spiders at all costs, and/or will endure their presence with intense fear.
What distinguishes a ‘general dislike of spiders’ to arachnophobia, is the pervasive distress sufferers experience (6 months+), and the impairment it causes to their ability to perform routine day-to-day tasks as a result. There is certainly nothing ‘incy wincy’ about it.
What Causes & Maintains Arachnophobia?
Behavioural theory proposes that arachnophobia develops in response to a process known as classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog). For arachnophobes, spiders commonly become associated with danger or pain. This may be a valid and understandable response to a one-off incident, and/or a result of negative cultural narratives about spiders. The phobia is subsequently maintained by our responses to encountering spiders from then on, which becomes negatively reinforced over time. That is, if every time I see a spider I run away, I learn that I feel better when I escape, and so I keep running away.
Cognitive theory adds that our avoidance and escape responses prevent us from disconfirming our ‘catastrophic’ beliefs – for example, ‘the spider is going to bite me and I will not be able to cope’. The arachnophobe becomes hypervigilant to finding evidence in favour of these anxious beliefs, discarding the evidence that ‘I am safe and I can cope’, and overestimates the probability of their catastrophic predictions coming true.
Is Arachnophobia ‘Curable’?
To answer plainly…of course!
Evidence shows that the most effective psychological treatment for phobias such as arachnophobia is in vivo exposure. This involves graded, planned and controlled exposure to the feared stimulus over a number of sessions, or in a one-off prolonged session.
Exposure therapy works by helping sufferers to turn off the ‘overactive alarm system’ in their brain which is triggered when they encounter the feared stimulus, via a process of ‘habituation’. This behavioural component is key in the of treatment for phobias, as opposed to trying to ‘rationalise’ our way out of our fears, which has a limited evidence-base.
For arachnophobes, it is likely that you may well still be doubting your ability to face your fears through therapy. And, it is possible that those catastrophic ‘but, what if…’ thoughts are being elicited for you by simply reading this post. So, humour yourself for just one moment by asking yourself this, ‘what if you overcame your phobia? What would life be like for you then?’ It is possible that your fear of spiders can become ‘incy wincy’ after all.
For more information about treatment for arachnophobia or other specific phobias, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by Dr Emily Smyth, Clinical Psychologist & Former Spider Phobic