Arachnophobia: the irrational fear of spiders
Table of contents
- Arachnophobia and entomophobia, similar disorders
- What is the difference between fear of spiders and spider phobia?
- How does arachnophobia develop?
- What are the symptoms of arachnophobia?
- How to treat arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia and entomophobia, similar disorders
Fear of spiders and fear of insects are two very similar disorders. The symptoms are very similar. It is not unusual for entomophobia to also include spiders in the frightening stimuli
For the entomophobe, there is no difference between six and eight legs.
Most of the information presented below is also valid for people with a more general insect phobia.
The mechanisms of development, maintenance and treatment of these phobias are similar.
The main difference lies in the stimuli that trigger the fear response. In arachnophobic individuals, only spider-like shapes and spiders cause fear.
In entomophobes, more vague shapes, buzzing sounds, erratic movements of small objects can also trigger the insect-related fear.
What is the difference between fear of spiders and spider phobia?
The fear of spiders is an instinctive reaction that can be explained from an evolutionary point of view. While most spiders are harmless, some spiders retain a particularly painful bite with potentially serious consequences. Our ancestors have therefore evolved to be wary of them.
However, this fear can sometimes evolve beyond what is reasonable. It will then take on proportions which will be a source of great suffering and which will have a concrete and significant impact on several areas of life.
Phobia is a pathology, which means that it is a source of great suffering.
The difference between fear and phobia will therefore be in the intensity of the signs and behaviours.
When the latter are so intense that they alone cause suffering and difficulties in living normally, we speak of a phobia.
How does arachnophobia develop?
Each phobia develops in a unique way for each individual, a combination of life events and risk factors, which together lead to the development of the disorder.
However, there are several recurring elements in many phobias that help to better understand the origin of this condition.
Origin of the phobia
The first possible source of a phobia, especially in arachnophobia, is genetic. There is an innate fear of spiders. This part depends on our genes, and some people are naturally more sensitive to them.
Genetics also explains certain susceptibilities to fear, anxiety and anxiety disorders. If we have a fertile ground for these difficulties, the chances of developing a phobia are higher. This part is therefore passed on by our parents. People who have one or both biological parents with a phobia of insects or spiders are more likely to develop it.
The second most common cause of phobia is a shocking or traumatic event. It most commonly occurs in childhood, when emotional sensitivity can lead to being more easily affected by events that bring strong emotions.
The young brain learns new information very easily, even more so when it is associated with strong emotion, both positive and negative. An unexpected and frightening event with a spider may be enough to set up the avoidance and reinforcement mechanisms of the phobia.
The third possible source of a phobia is the family and social environment during childhood. Beyond genes, children learn a lot from their parents and close circle of friends by simple observation. Seeing a family member terrified of spiders, repeating the elements of this fear, expressing the scary or dangerous nature of spiders, all this is absorbed by the child who will be able to reproduce the same reactions and behaviours as they grow up.
Avoidance and reinforcement of the phobia
Once the first fears are present, avoidance is put in place. It will be the motor and the reinforcer of the phobia.
Avoidance will consist of getting out of the anxiety-causing situation as quickly as possible in order to relieve the unpleasantness of the emotion.
In doing so, one learns that escape is the right way out of the perceived dangerous situation. This escape will then occur more and more often and the associated fear will continue to increase each time.
What are the symptoms of arachnophobia?
Phobias are a relatively common family of anxiety disorders. The symptoms that characterise them are extremely unpleasant and can be a real source of suffering. Learning to recognise them helps to identify them, which in turn helps to tame them.
What does arachnophobia look like?
Imagine for a moment the following situation: the light bulb in your toilet has just burnt out and you have to go to the cellar to get a new one. You are standing in front of the door at the top of the stairs and you feel your stomach start to knot. You don’t go down to the cellar very often because you’ve seen spiders there several times. The last time you went down there was a long time ago and there were even more spider webs than you remember. Now, after months of not having been down there, you dread what you might find.
With your heart pounding in your chest, you grasp the banister with a trembling hand, to give yourself courage and steady yourself. You turn on the cellar light and begin to descend, one step at a time.
Your eyes scan every square inch of the walls and floor, looking for any shape, shadow or eight-legged figure.
With each step, your breath quickens and anxiety rises within you.
You reach the bottom and your eyes continue to scan every nook and cranny as quickly and in as much detail as possible, making some surveillance cameras envious.
Suddenly, your eyes land on the object of your fears. On the shelf where the bulbs are kept, a dense, whitish web has been woven and in its centre, a spidery horror seems to be watching you.
Your heart leaps in your chest and without asking for help you rush up the stairs, closing the door behind you, cold sweat on your back.
The toilet will wait. You go to the supermarket to buy new light bulbs instead.
This situation highlights the most common physical symptoms of anxiety: muscle tension, a lump in the stomach, increased heart rate and breathing, as well as the avoidance discussed earlier, but also hypervigilance, being on guard at all times in an environment that is perceived to contain the feared danger.
These symptoms are unpleasant, sometimes unbearable, and also exhausting. They require intense energy to cope with them, which can lead to greater fatigue and less ability to deal with other stressful situations.
How to treat arachnophobia?
Despite its sometimes intense nature, arachnophobia is perfectly treatable. The methods presented below allow you to regain a significant level of comfort in your life, and even to achieve a total disappearance of the phobia with the time and peace of mind that this means.
Cognitive and behavioural therapies
Cognitive, behavioural and emotional therapies (CBT) are supported by numerous studies for their effectiveness, particularly in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Phobias are one of these, and CBT is particularly effective in their treatment.
These therapies are based on the principle of exposure. Faced with an anxiety-provoking situation that does not present any danger, anxiety cannot remain high indefinitely, it must eventually go down, which leads to habituation to the situation and the phobogenic elements.
Through repetition of increasingly difficult situations, the brain erases the association between spider and fear until the phobia is completely extinguished.
This therapy can be accompanied by cognitive restructuring, i.e. the gradual change of erroneous thought patterns that participate in the vicious circle of anxiety to find a healthy and adapted way of thinking.
Virtual reality exposure therapy
Based on the principle of exposure in CCT, Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy or VRET makes it easier to start exposures by smoothing the difficulty curve of this exercise. By immersing yourself in a virtual world in which spiders are represented, with varying sizes and increasing numbers. Virtual reality makes real life exposures easier and allows you to engage more effectively in your therapy.
Modern virtual reality therapy tools include many features, for example relaxation tools to facilitate other aspects of therapy.