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Arachnophobia is the intense fear of spiders—a type of arachnid. Mites, ticks, and scorpions are also arachnids, but spiders are usually what scare people with arachnophobia most.
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What is arachnophobia?
A phobia is more than just a fear of something. People with phobias have an extreme fear of an object or phenomenon that’s unlikely to cause harm. In other words: those fears are not based on any immediate danger but can still be very distressing. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, n.d.)
Phobias are a form of anxiety disorder. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition (DSM V) lists five subtypes of specific phobias based on a person’s fears. These are animals (e.g., spiders), natural environment (e.g., heights, storms, water), blood/injections, situations (e.g., elevators, planes), and others (e.g., loud sounds or costumed characters) (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, n.d.).
Triggers for arachnophobia could be seeing a spider or knowing one is close by. In extreme cases, just thinking about spiders or hearing the word spider can trigger anxiety and distress.
Some people with phobias will go to great lengths to avoid the thing they are afraid of. Unfortunately, this avoidance can negatively affect their lives and relationships. An arachnophobia diagnosis comes after these fears have persisted for six months or more (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, n.d.).
Anxiety: signs, symptoms, and solutions
What are the symptoms of arachnophobia?
Symptoms of arachnophobia are related to intense anxiety. Symptoms include (Substance Abuse and Health Administration, n.d.):
- Fear and anxiety about spiders, including constant anxious thoughts about the presence of spiders or being bitten by a spider.
- Fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the real danger the person is in (most spiders aren’t dangerous)
- People with arachnophobia often change their behavior to avoid spiders. For about 19% of people with phobias, this avoidance changes the way they live, work, maintain relationships, or do normal tasks (Wardenaar, 2017).
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for six months or more.
These symptoms can be debilitating. People with arachnophobia tend to change their behavior to avoid getting triggered.
What causes arachnophobia?
If you think you have arachnophobia, rest assured—you are not alone. Phobias are among the most prevalent anxiety disorders (Witthauer, 2016), and arachnophobia is especially common (Polak, 2020). According to some estimates, specific phobias will affect 7.4% of people at some point in life. Interestingly, phobias are more common among women; nearly 10% of women have a phobia at one time or another (Wardenaar, 2017).
Many people get diagnosed with a specific phobia around the age of eight. Why some people develop phobias and others don’t is a tricky question to answer. Scientists think that a complex mix of biological, psychological, and environmental factors leads to specific phobias.
For example, scientists believe that processing and responding to fear happens in the amygdala, which processes fear and threats. Evidence suggests that this area of the brain could influence if someone has a phobia or not. One study found that women with arachnophobia had smaller amygdalae compared to women who weren’t afraid of spiders. Still, researchers are unsure whether the size of the amygdala is the cause or an effect of phobias (Fisler, 2013).
Other research has found that people with arachnophobia have a higher amygdala activation than those without a phobia (Münsterkötter, 2015).
PTSD: understanding post-traumatic stress disorder
Specific phobias also tend to aggregate in families. If you have a first-degree relative with a phobia, studies show you are more likely to develop one yourself (Villafuerte, 2003). Certain phobias seem to have a bigger genetic component, such as agoraphobia. Evidence for genetic inheritance is not as strong for animal phobias like arachnophobia (Kendler, 1999).
One older theory trying to explain phobias is that specific phobias could be a way to help us stay out of harm. In 1971, Martin Seligman published a piece in the journal Behavior Therapy titled Phobias and Preparedness. He thought that phobias were an evolutionary asset to protect us from danger. After this study, several others have investigated the link between evolution and phobias (Seligman, 1971). While interesting, Seligman’s theory has not been proven to be true.
This theory doesn’t help understand fear that can be more distressing than protective for people with phobias. It does also not address the fact that very few spiders are dangerous to humans. One study from 2018 challenged Seligman’s theory arguing that fear of scorpions would be more advantageous from an evolutionary standpoint. Yet, few people report phobic fears of scorpions compared to spiders (Vetter, 2018).
Some experts believe that news and movies about spider bites have increased cultural fear. The box office hit Arachnophobia by Stephen Spielberg is one example. A 2020 study in Italy showed that most news of spider bites was sensational and false. The same study showed that social media tends to spread these false claims about spider bites (Mammola, 2020)
On the other hand, pop culture might also decrease fears. In a 2019 study, adults with arachnophobia watched scenes from Spiderman and Ant-man. This study used a version of exposure therapy—participants watched scenes including specific insects and were less fearful of them afterward. The preliminary results suggested that the positive context of superhero movies helped viewers to reframe their perceptions, decreasing their fear response (Hoffman, 2019).
What are treatments for arachnophobia?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) with exposure is the first-line treatment for phobias (Thng, 2020). Medications like benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed for people who find their phobia especially debilitating and for whom CBT isn’t available.
Untreated phobias and anxieties are typically life-long (Bandelow, 2015). Unfortunately, few people who have phobias seek treatment (Mackenzie, 2011). This is likely due to fear of exposure therapy. But treating your arachnophobia doesn’t have to be scary.
Exposure therapy for arachnophobia
As part of CBT, your therapist may ask if you are willing to try exposing yourself to spiders in a safe environment, as this is the main strategy to treat phobias. Your therapist may have you try repeatedly looking at images or other spider-related content. These repeated exposures are meant to reduce your fear by showing that you are not in danger (Craske 2014). This is in vivo exposure therapy, and some consider it the gold standard for specific phobias (Botella, 2016).
Exposure therapy: a proven therapy for anxiety and PTSD
Newer therapies use technology to make people feel more comfortable with spiders. Virtual and Augmented Reality have both proven to be effective compared to in vivo therapy (Thng, 2020; Wechsler, 2019).
For those with extreme arachnophobia, even seeing images of spiders might be traumatic. One study tried to mitigate the anxiety by using images of spider characteristics rather than actual arachnids (the Atomium of Brussels is an example of such an image). Participants in this group reduced their fear without even being aware they were being exposed to spiders (Granado, 2007).
A pulse-quickening 2019 study timed spider images to people’s heart rate. This new strategy showed that exposure to phobic fear at the exact time of heartbeats improved fear reactions. Afterward, participants felt less scared and showed fewer physical signs of fear. Researchers believe this is because the pumping cycle of the heart influences our perception of fearful things. This study could pave the way for new arachnophobia treatments (Watson, 2019).
What’s more, including more spider education in elementary schools could be a way to prevent arachnophobia. Research from 2018 found that education about spiders can decrease fear in children. This study recommended holding workshops and educational groups to prevent arachnophobia. These methods helped children identify dangerous spiders and showed them that most spiders are not harmful (Shahriari-Namadi, 2018).
Like all phobias, arachnophobia can be debilitating. The good news is there is help, and you and a therapist can create a plan to treat your arachnophobia together. This will likely include cognitive-behavioral and exposure therapy.
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