I have grouped together fear of spiders, of snakes and of mice because they follow more or less the same thinking patterns. The approach required to overcome one will do just as well for either of the others.
In the UK there are no indigenous poisonous spiders, yet numerous people, especially women, profess to being terrified of them. On the whole men tend to think it unmacho to show a fear of spiders and in many ways this probably ensures their fears never develop to the level of that of many women.
Babies who crawl around on the floor rarely show any fear of spiders, quite the opposite, they will often try to put them in their mouths along with everything else they manage to pick up.
If they have a parent, sibling, grandparent or child minder who reacts to this with horror and fear, the child's survival instinct starts to label a spider as potentially dangerous. If the child's carer continues to react in this way, the child will start to do so as well.
The experiment shown here demonstrates very clearly how much a baby's reaction is dependant on how its mother reacts.
Why do some of us develop these phobias?
In some cases these phobias develop as a result of the person actually having a negative experience with the feared object. For example, they may have been frightened by a large plastic but very realistic looking spider, mouse or snake when a sibling hid it in their bed. This negative association is also stored by the survival instinct in a similar way and when the feared object reappears, the person has negative raised arousal, thinks more negative thoughts, and so reinforces the fear again.
More often the person with the phobia has learnt it in childhood by copying the reactions of those who were with them every day. People with irrational phobias (phobias where we are afraid of something which is not really going to do us any harm) have a close relative who also has this.
So why doesn't everyone who is raised by a spider phobic develop a fear of spiders too?
The answer to this lies with the arousal system. Those who inherit a slower moving one tend not to learn these fear triggers in the first place.
As this phobia develops, the mere sight, thought or even an image of a spider will cause the person to physically cringe, tense their muscles, and imagine all sorts of horrible things that might follow. In the case of spiders, the person often gets fleeting thoughts of the spider running towards them and even up their legs. As the person tenses their body and thinks scary thoughts, so the survival instinct's belief that this spider is indeed dangerous is reinforced. And so it goes on... Each subsequent episode simply makes the phobia stronger.
People who are afraid of spiders are often embarrassed by it
I have often sat in a meeting and become aware that a colleague was no longer paying attention to what was going on but had their attention fixed on a point on the floor. Their body would be rigid with tension and often their face losing colour. All because there was a tiny creature crossing the floor some distance away - they'd seen a spider!
Very often the person who's afraid doesn't want to look stupid in front of colleagues and can't bring themselves to leave the room so they remain frozen to the spot. When others realise what is happening they tend to make light of it, which only makes the spider phobic feel ten times worse.
What can you do about your fear of spiders?
The usual treatment for any specific phobia is done by getting the person to gradually become accustomed to different levels of contact with the thing they fear. I have described an example of a lady I treated many years ago further down this page.
But many people who have these phobias - spiders, mice, snakes, etc - can't even face the thought of allowing themselves to face the thing in the first place. For many people it might be enough for them not to have to show such terror when confronted by spiders during a meeting etc. If this is you (and I have already admitted that I have no desire to be comfortable around snakes as I mentioned here) there is an alternative.
Like the woman in the image above, what causes embarrassment to spider phobics is their extreme reaction when confronted by a tiny harmless creature. This is what others find amusing. Very often it is enough for a person with a fear of spiders to simply overcome the need for this extreme reaction.
How to just stop over-reacting to spiders
1. Become consciously aware of your thoughts
2. Become aware of the tension in your body
Each time we cringe and automatically tense our muscles as we think about the feared creature, we are reinforcing the phobia and telling the survival instinct to keep warning us about this...
To overcome a specific phobia you have to retrain the survival instinct not to view these triggers as dangerous. This is achieved by first training yourself to become consciously aware of your thoughts and body tension.
3. Learn a Calm Scene visualisation
This is something you need to focus your thoughts onto instead of the feared creature
4. Practise the Dead Weight technique
This bit is about releasing the tension in your body. When you do that your survival instinct starts to think it is wrong to be giving you danger warnings because you don't appear to be taking any notice of them
5. As you do this you may calmly leave the room or just look away
You don't have to watch the feared creature and think scary thoughts!
If you repeat this on every subsequent occasion that you get a startle warning then eventually the survival instinct decides that this is not something to be feared after all and it stops giving these warnings. Specific phobias all rely upon our negative response to the original warning to continue.
In time, if this action is repeated, the phobia will just fade away.
The same happens with mice. The sufferer imagines the mouse running towards them and up their legs etc. With snakes it is often the image of the snake's movement that makes the sufferer cringe.
The spider-phobic who became a spider expert
This is the story of an amazing lady whom I helped overcome a severe spider phobia some years ago. We'll call her Margaret.
Margaret first contacted me because in six months' time she was due to go to Australia for a month to stay with relatives on the holiday of a lifetime. But she was terrified of spiders.
Margaret lived alone. Her phobia was so severe that, if she came across a spider on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she would be unable to go back to bed but instead would have to go and wake her neighbour and get him to come and remove it before she could relax.
On the other hand she was also extremely motivated to overcome her fear.
After learning to picture a calm scene and to go dead weight, Margaret was asked each day to draw a few spider shapes. These were just basically circles with eight lines around the edge. The drawings looked nothing like the real thing yet they still evoked fear in Margaret to begin with. As she drew these she was to be aware of her feared thoughts and immediately picture her calm scene for a few moments whilst allowing her body to go dead weight.
Margaret soon became comfortable with the drawings so I then asked her to get some books from the library with more realistic images of spiders. We started with children's books which still didn't have very realistic images. Again Margaret worked at this a little each day and soon progressed to more detailed images and photos.
During these early stages she was also instructed that if she came across a real spider at home she was simply to look away, do her calm scene and dead weight, and fetch her neighbour to remove it.
Once she was able to look at photos she was asked to remain in the presence of real spiders and repeat the process.
Margaret went to Australia. I must admit I was somewhat worried as to how she would cope. On her return she asked to see me again. My heart sank as I was worried she wanted to come and tell me how bad it had been.
When she arrived, Margaret was beaming. She had reversed her spider phobia to such a degree that whilst in Australia she had read lots about them. She arrived with books and happily showed me all the ones she'd actually seen on her visit. Her family now regarded her as a spider expert!
Margaret's case is unusual but it does demonstrate that phobias are down to our thinking habits. If you learn to manage your thoughts, you can overcome just about any fear if you want to enough.