Arachnophobia: A web of fear

Spiders are everywhere this autumn – and that means a living hell for arachnophobes. But they can learn to beat the terror, discovers Holly Williams

They creep, they crawl. They scuttle and skulk. They scare us. And they’re multiplying. This autumn has seen an increase in many people’s least favourite house guests: spiders. According to conservationists, sightings of the eight-legged critters are up following a warm summer. Matt Shardlow, from the invertebrate conservation organisation Buglife, says: “It’s likely to be a good year for spiders, as it was warm for most of the summer without cold snaps or hot, dry periods.” He added that, against a long-term background of declining numbers of insects and arachnids in Britain, “any increase is something to be pleased about”.

But the extra arachnids won’t brighten everyone’s autumn – fear of spiders is one of our most common phobias. Arachnophobia can range from the common-or-garden dislike of their long legs and weird walk, through to seriously debilitating anxiety attacks which can dominate the sufferer’s life.

“Phobias can get very severe – they can stop people taking holidays or lead to a heightened sense of anxiety where people can’t quite relax. People can become prisoners in their own homes,” says psychologist and hypnotherapist Felix Economakis, who helped cure extreme phobics on BBC3 show The Panic Room.

A phobia is an anxiety disorder caused by a powerful fear of any object or situation that wouldn’t normally cause alarm. They are essentially irrational: spiders in this country are harmless, sufferers know spiders are harmless, yet they still cause serious distress.

Bridget O’Connell, from the mental health charity Mind, explains: “Many of us have fears which we acknowledge are irrational, but it can get to the point when people are unable to go out. It can get so bad that even a mental image can cause intense dread and fear.”

Phobics experience panic attacks, an extreme fight-or-flight reaction in the face of danger, characterised by physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, trembling, dizziness and shortness of breath. “People feel they are having some kind of heart attack, that they are actually going to die,” says O’Connell.

Jo Evans, who used to deal with spiders by

squirting them to death with ketchup, said that the mere sight of the creatures used to cause her “sheer panic and terror. I would be frozen on the spot. Rational thought goes out of the window and your only thoughts are to get rid of that little object of terror!”

Of course, not everyone with an aversion to spiders has such an extreme reaction, but a shudder is a common response. We’ve all been in a room when a “spider situation” occurs and there’s no one who can bring themselves to touch it. “There’s really nothing very lovely about them,” says Economakis. “Some people hate the scuttling; for others it’s the look or the feel of them. They are predatory animals, rather than being pretty or cuddly.”

But aside from the niggling feeling that a creature that spins its home from its bum and crawls around on eight legs is just a bit wrong (especially when said legs are hairier than a hippie’s in wintertime), are there serious reasons lurking behind our spider fear?

Economakis suggests: “There is evidence for evolutionary avoidance of dangerous animals like scorpions, snakes and spiders. These are atavistic fears, which are a throwback to earlier days.” Our wise ancestors avoided creepy-crawlies which might have delivered a nasty nip, leaving us with an evolutionary hangover whereby removing a harmless house spider from the bath requires nerves of steel.

Of course, this theory doesn’t account for why some people can’t even look at a picture of them, while others think they are cute. It is thought phobias may be triggered by a traumatic childhood event, a nasty experience with a spider, or an association between a spider and an unrelated unpleasant event.

But with a disorder as common as arachnophobia, learnt behaviour is a significant contributor. As children we copy those around us; if they freak out at the sight of the eight-legged ones we may respond likewise. “You learn arachnophobia – that’s the main reason for it being so common,” says Nik Speakman, half of a husband and wife psychotherapist team. “Children have heard the mother scream, which puts them in a heightened state, then they see the spider.”

The good news for arachnophobes is that treatment has a high success rate. Economakis recommends hypnosis. “There are modern therapies available,” he says. “A hypnotherapist could cure arachnophobia in one session.” A slower approach, possibly taking months, is gradual exposure: looking at drawings of spiders, working up to photographs and handling the real thing.

Speakman also works with arachnophobics to break the subconscious link between spiders and the fight-or-flight response. Ben Clarke, who featured on The Apprentice this year, overcame his fear through the Speakmans’ use of various brain reprogramming exercises on Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Little Brother in July. By the end of the show he could pick up a tarantula with bare hands.

“I had a sort of primal fear of big, hairy spiders,” he says. “I was afraid it would stick its big fangs in me. But I’m totally cool with them now. I didn’t like picking it up but it was fine – it’s like your brain is just numb.”

O’Connell is also positive about treatment: “What seems to work best is cognitive behavioural therapy, possibly with medication to reduce the anxiety. CBT helps people un-pair the fear and the object, to create new ways

of thinking about spiders.” She advises people to acknowledge fear of spiders can be a serious condition, an opinion not always widely held. Despite – or because of – arachnophobia being so common, sufferers can feel dismissed by constant comments of ‘it’s only a spider, it can’t hurt you – it’s more afraid of you’. It is no more irrational than any other phobia.

“People need to accept what they are feeling is real, it’s not silly,” says O’Connell. “It’s not a logic thing – it doesn’t work to rationalise that spiders are harmless. Sufferers know that, so trying to be logical may make things worse.” Instead she recommends setting yourself tasks, small sensible steps – like walking past a web – and giving yourself a reward. Perhaps autumn’s spider boom will provide an opportunity to face those fears … one web at a time.

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