FEAR OF SPIDERS

The fear of spiders or arachnophobia originates in the part of the brain responsible for protection.  Although the fear is universal, in every human, the amount of fear varies dramatically.  There is up to 7% of the population that suffers from a more than normal level of fear, with a majority of those being females.  This has led to speculation that a sex hormone might be the culprit. However, this theory was rejected by a study in which babies were shown pictures of spiders. Their facial expressions were then measured for signs of fear.  Females were shown to have higher levels of fear, even in the infant stage, when sex hormones are not present.

Some scientists suggest that the connection is associated with the “hunter-gatherer” division in our primitive brain.  Spiders are more frequently encountered around plants (gatherer activities, historically associated with women) than around animals (hunter activities, historically associated with men).  This means that the fear is likely hard-wired into our brain circuitry.  This hard-wired portion is referred to as our primordial fears.  It exists separate and in addition to learned fears – fears that are learned from events such as trauma, parents, manipulation, and genetic factors. 

Detailed discussions of how to cope with fears are covered in the “Solve It” section of this website.   The number one method for treating fears is called “cognitive behavioral therapy.”  The process works. And for those people who have panic attacks, disabling reactions, or who have been diagnosed as having a full blown phobia, professional treatment is necessary.  Not only is it necessary, it should be done as soon as possible. 

Although the “Solve It” section deals with how to resolve fears, the discussion below is a step by step illustration.  It involves cognitive-type therapy but it also uses as many sensory input connections as possible.  Multiple sensory inputs are utilized to reconstruct and strengthen neural pathways around, over or through those circuits in the brain where the spider fears originate.  Think of each sensory desensitizing input as a string.  If you have a section of the brain transmitting bursts of spider fears, each time you go through a cognitive desensitizing training exercise you create a string around that area.  But, rather than one string, if you use two sensory inputs, you wind two strings around the source.  This means it cuts the desensitizing training time needed. 

“What are sensory inputs?” you might ask.  They are information sources generated by your five basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  But within each of these senses there are multiple components to sense.  For example, sight involves hundreds of components from shapes, dimensions, colors, motions, symmetry, continuity, patterns, etc.  Hearing involves tones, rhythm, intensity, volume, harmony, etc.  There are millions of tastes and smells.  If you use 10 different inputs during the desensitizing training, you are simultaneously wrapping the fear epicenter with 10 different strings. 

When writing you should use endearing words that you associate with pleasant things and memories.  When listening you should use your favorite calming music.  Tastes should involve things like sweet treats; and smells should be your favorite fragrances.  These senses should be invoked while looking at the photo or video so that your brain associates the pleasant feature with the unpleasant fear.  These associations are the road map for the strings to find the specific fear location.      

Everyone does not start out with the same amount of fear.  The level of intensity is unique to each person.  Table 1 below indicates a single sample out of hundreds as to where to start with the training for your level of fear. For full details on each step number refer to the steps below the table.

Table

Fear Level and Start Step

FEAR LEVEL STEP NUMBER

Your fear level is abnormal and is a full blown phobia.  The cartoon figure above triggers an extreme reaction and it is difficult for you to look at it.  For example, you strain to count the hairs on each spider leg. 

Step 1.  You should seek professional help.  Avoidance may delay the stress, but you often do not have the power to avoid all encounters.   What would happen if you are driving and a spider crawled onto the dashboard.  Can you pull over safely?

The cartoon figure creates stress, but you can force yourself to count the number of hairs on the legs. Can you name one thing that is cute about the figure?
Step 2. Start your training here.
The above cartoon does not trigger any significant fear or stress, but a more aggressive cartoon does.
Step 3. Start your training here.
A video of a non-threatening cartoon produces stress then start here. If the stress is only mild go to Step 5.
Step 4. Start your training here.
Looking at a picture of a real spider causes stress. Start the training with the spider picture that produces only mild stress. If you can have a conversation with the spider of if you can spot several positive features of the spider, then go to the next more scary spider picture to start the training. If you have only mild stress looking at a tarantula, go to Step 7.
Step 5. Start your training here.
Looking at a picture of a more aggressive spider such as Daddy Long Legs causes stress start at Step 6. If it does not then go to Step 7.
Step 6. Start your training here.
Watching a video of real spiders moving around causes stress then start at Step 7. If not, go to Step 8.
Step 7. Start your training here.
If observing a spider outside your house causes stress, then start here. If you can have a conversation with the spider or if you can name several positive features of the spider, then you are fully capable of normal daily activities. This does not negate a potential learned fear.
Step 8. Start your training here.

A. Dealing With Primordial Fears. This paragraph addresses a suggested single method of handling fears originating in the primitive sections of the brain.  These fears are essentially impossible to eliminate.  But new electrical paths may reduce the effect.  

The starting point for the following steps are outlined in Table 1 above.

Step 1.  If you have a full blown phobia, if you cannot function in the spider’s presence, or if looking at the cartoon above causes major stress, you need professional help to assist you in resolving the problem.  This is no different than seeking the help from a swimming instructor in learning how to swim.  If you need it, do it.

 Step 2.   This starts with pictures, preferably with cartoon pictures of friendly spiders like the one shown above.  Print out the cartoon picture of the spider and then write down your most positive words.  Have your favorite calming music playing in the background and pop a small treat in your mouth every once in a while.  Have a bottle of perfume, cologne or flowers on your desk or table.  After you write down the word, say it out loud while looking directly at the picture.  Don’t rush it, but say it with volume and feeling.  After you write down the second word, say both out loud, and repeat the process, varying your pitch, cadence, and volume as you say them out loud.  Each verbal statement helps create an electronic signal, and each electronic signal helps create a string, so the more you say it the better.  Do this for at least ten minutes, until you have gone through ten words, a half-dozen treats, 1-3 songs, and at least one smell.  Repeat this process tomorrow and the next day until the cartoon picture is only mildly scary or not scary at all. 

Step 3.  The following week, print out a different cartoon character and repeat step 2.  Hopefully, this will only take 3 to 5 days.  Change the positive words that you write on the picture, change the song, treat, and/or smell.  You can purchase various odors at a local hardware store or grocery store.  Never skimp on the number of senses.  If your mind wanders off topic, it may be a signal that you need to go to the next level or that you are bored and perhaps you should shorten the lesson.  Short 10 minute lessons are recommended.

Step 4.  Once you can look at a picture of a non-threatening cartoon character, proceed to a non-threatening cartoon video like the YouTube video known as Lucas The Spider Creator.  To some people, the spider movement is as scary as the spider itself.  A fast running spider is extremely intimidating.  This step may take a little longer to master.  You may want to bring out the big guns on the taste reward and indulge in a favorite sweet treat. 

Step 5.  It is now time to proceed to photos of real spiders, but NOT the really scary ones like tarantulas.  The jumping spider has a friendly looking face.  The process of Step 2 begins anew.  This photo is a big step, so take it slow.  This time write down things you see in the photo that are friendly, attractive, perfect, etc.  Look at the eyes of the jumping spider.  Can you think of a friend who has large eyes or thinning hair on top or scraggly whiskers?  Can you talk to the spider as if it were your friend?  Mary, how did you get those beautiful eyes?  Now put yourself in the body of the spider and reply to the question.  I asked my mom for the biggest and most beautiful eyes

Step 6.  Next find a picture of a more threatening spider, like a Daddy Long Leg spider.   Get a black and white picture with a solid white background as opposed to a real surface.  Real backgrounds often make the spider appear more threatening.  Try and picture in your mind something other than the spider.  You look like cracks in my windshieldMy genealogy chart has more legs than you. Etc.  If it takes a month to reach this level, don’t worry – you’re average.  Do not push it.  It is similar to building up muscles by lifting weights.  The muscles do not grow overnight and neither do the strings surrounding the fear. 

Step 7.  Now you are ready for videos of real spiders.  Go onto YouTube™ and search for spiders.  A good introductory video on spiders is “Don’t be Afraid of Spiders.”  It has a good discussion on spiders in general. And it’s not too scary.  Find another family-friendly spider movie and watch it.  Remember, the more senses you activate the more strings are generated. 

Step 8.  Go outside and look for spiders.  This is going to be hard.  It is best to have a friend find a small, not too scary spider.  Then you and your friend pull up a chair and watch the spider for ten minutes.  If it is not too much stress, have a conversation with your friend on what you see.  Next have a conversation with the spider.  Do this for several days until you can go outside and have a conversation with the spider without your friend.  When you accomplish this, you have finished the training session. 

Step 9.  You have now graduated.  Have a party with your friends and family.  Buy a cake with a spider cartoon as frosting.  You do not need to pick up a spider to prove that you’re no longer afraid of spiders; just as you do not have to jump off a building to prove that you’re not afraid of heights.  The only objective is to lessen your fear of spiders to the point where it no longer disrupts your daily life experiences.  These eight steps should get you to that point. 

Step 10.  What do you do after graduation?  Whenever you see a spider, and you will, assess how it made you feel.  If you did not react the same way that you did at the end of Step 8, resume the training. 

B. Dealing With Learned Fears.

  1. Trauma. If you had a traumatic event with a spider, you will need to deal with those circumstances.  The treatment method discussed in paragraph A will likely not solve this problem.  There are many factors that may need to be resolved.  Did you put your hand in a dark area?  Exercises in putting your hand in dark holes may be part of the cognitive behavioral therapy.  If you were bitten and it became infected, then you may have fears associated with infections, hospitals, or medical treatments.  Did it happen while on a hike, near a lake, or at a baseball game? Then you may have fears associated with a location or event.  The treatment methods are discussed in the section on “Solve It.” 

  2. Parent Connection. Were either of your parents afraid of spiders? Did they teach you to become afraid as well?  Did you have an overprotective parent who forced you to get out of your bedroom when a spider appeared in a far away corner?  You will need to address those learned fears.

  3. Manipulation. The movie industry has made sure that people never forget how bad spiders are. Movies such as Tarantula, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Jumanji all portray spiders in a frightening way. 

One way to avoid that kind of trauma is to not go to movies featuring spiders.  Most movies intentionally make spiders into villains and then further magnify the fear factor by making them larger than real life, with human-like brains, looking for revenge.  Don’t give Hollywood the satisfaction of paying for these ridiculous caricatures which allow them to scare people with false, exaggerated images. 

C.  Personality Type Connection: The personality type most susceptible to arachnophobia is type-D.  D-types are concerned with future events and caution.  This is right up their alley.  There are many celebrities that have or had arachnophobia including: Johnny Depp, Justin Timberlake, Halle Berry, Wendy Richard, Jennifer Lawrence, Andre Agassi, J.K. Rowling, Jessica Simpson, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and many others.  Most everyone knows someone who has a fear of spiders.