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

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