Why do creepy crawlies bug us so badly?

David Attenborough's new series will be unpleasant viewing for those with a phobia of insects and spiders. But what's behind our fears – and how can we conquer them? Gillian Orr investigates

Many of us have something that brings us out in a cold sweat and makes our hair stand on end. Whether it's being trapped in a lift, flying or peering over the top of a skyscraper, phobias affect one in 10 of the population. And a fear of creepy crawlies is among the most common of phobias.

Should you suffer from entomophobia (the fear of insects), there is every chance you haven't been tuning in to Sir David Attenborough's new show Micro Monsters 3D, in which the beloved naturalist uses the latest 3D technology to bring to life the extreme and unseen world of bugs.

However, one of the show's producers, Sias Wilson, claims that there are ways to get around such phobias. "Generally speaking, if a person does have a phobia, it's worth revisiting and having a look at insects for what they are. I think if you can see the beauty in them, and that's what we're trying to do with the series, then that can be very helpful."

But while phobias might be one of the most common psychiatric disorders, they are also among the most curable. As well as various behaviour therapies, hypnotherapy is a popular way to desensitise sufferers.

There are actually only two things we fear when we are born: loud noises and falling, our fight-or-flight instinct reacting to a perceived harmful attack. Other fears can be developed very early on, however.

"Our memory begins before we are even born and continues all the way through until the day we die," explains David Samson, a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who specialises in the treatment of phobias. "All this data is recorded somewhere. Ten per cent of it gets stored in the conscious while the other 90 per cent is stored in the subconscious. For approximately the first six years of our life, virtually everything that you see, feel, hear or smell gets dumped into the subconscious. Once you get to six years of age, a different process happens and the conscious brain takes in all this data, but it then filters it into the conscious and subconscious. But it's the pre-six-year-old stuff that I deal with because it's when learned behaviour takes place."

Samson argues that a one-year-old seeing a spider for the first time would have no natural instinct to be afraid of it and would most likely be inquisitive. Problems arise from the reaction to the one-year-old's fearlessness. "A child moves their hand towards it, then a parent walks in and tells them in a louder-than-normal voice not to touch it, uses a faster-than-normal hand movement and perhaps even kills it. This is something extraordinary and suddenly the child has learned something. A folder is created in the subconscious called 'spider', and within that folder is something to be fearful of."

This so-called folder will lie dormant until the subconscious – your protection mechanism – thinks you might be in danger.

"Let's say many years later the child is at a friend's house and out of the corner of their eye they see a spider," says Samson. "Their conscious brain, the more intelligent bit, tries to rationalise it, but more pressure is placed on it by the subconscious, which is telling them to get the hell out of there. In a nutshell, this is how phobias develop."

Wilson believes that a phobia of creepy crawlies also arises from the fact that we aren't that accustomed to such creatures. "We don't see a lot of them wandering around. We rarely even see spiders in our day-to-day lives so we quickly become fearful of the unknown. Only about 10 per cent of bugs will eat or bite other bugs or small mammals, so it's actually a very small percentage of the millions which exist out there. Saying that, I think it's very difficult to say to someone with a phobia that they're wrong because it's a psychological, instinctive sort of conditioning. It's more deep-rooted than merely looking at the insect."

Mary-Jane was terrified of spiders until she was treated by Samson using hypnotherapy. He described her as "a really bad case. She couldn't even look at images. She had adapted her life with a huge amount of avoidance."

"If I saw a picture of one or one appeared on television I would scream, my heart would race and I'd shut my eyes," she recalls. "I was terrified of them. Once I got home and there was a tiny spider near my keyhole. I couldn't use my keys and had to call a friend to come and let me in. A couple of years ago the Tate gallery had a giant Louise Bourgeois spider installation and it appeared on posters on the Underground to advertise it. It was just art but I couldn't even look at it and I ended up actually contacting Transport for London about it. Of course, that seems ridiculous now."

Mary-Jane decided to give hypnotherapy a go after reading about it online (she was too scared with the prospect of aversion therapy). "I remember everything about it; it was really interesting. It really went back to my mother's fear of spiders when I was really young and she would shout at them. She was afraid of them and that was transferred onto me. It unlocks all these memories."

There are two kinds of hypnosis that can be used for this treatment. One is suggestion hypnosis in which a therapist takes a patient into hypnosis and then will makes positive suggestions. However, Samson believes that this doesn't always provide a permanent fix and no longer practises it. "By doing what I do, and investigating the root causes, and allowing them as an intelligent adult to review the situation again and override the bad data they have in their subconscious, I find it much more effective," he argues.

These days Mary-Jane is a changed person; she even watched the film Arachnophobia recently. "I just don't care any more," she says. "If I find one in the bathroom I'll trap it and put it out of the window. The first time I found one in the bath after the therapy I just felt sorry for it. I thought, 'Oh, that's not the right place for you, is it?' It's a completely different reaction. I may not want to cuddle them but I have a love and compassion for them now. And I laugh at how I used to behave."

Micro Monsters 3D With David Attenborough is on Sky 3D and Sky1 HD, Saturday nights at 8pm

 

Face the fear

* The most common forms are melissophobia (fear of bees) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders). It is estimated that up to 50 per cent of women and 10 per cent of males suffer from the latter.

* Only blood feeders (mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, bedbugs) actively pursue humans. The most common phobic objects (spiders, bees) never bite or sting unless trapped or seriously threatened.

* Lepidopterophobia, or fear of butterflies, is remarkably common. The website ihatebutterflies.com and its affiliated Facebook community boast more than 2,200 members.

* In extreme cases, victims imagine their skin is crawling with insects. This is called Formication, and can cause sufferers to scratch their skin to pieces.

* Our fear has been handed down through evolution. A monkey will run from a wiggling rope even if it has never seen a snake – a fear that does not require previous experience of danger.

Kate McCarthy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

    £30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

    Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

    £34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

    Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

    Developer - WinForms, C#

    £280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform