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Arachnophobia, an extreme fear of spiders and other arachnids, is one of the most well-known specific phobias. Although many people are afraid of spiders, it is thought that between 3% and 5% of the population experience true arachnophobia.
We are going to look at arachnophobia in more detail, including common causes, triggers, symptoms and treatment.
What is arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia is an extreme and overwhelming fear of arachnids, most commonly spiders. Some people with arachnophobia only fear spiders, whereas others fear all arachnids, including spiders, ticks, mites, scorpions and daddy longlegs. Someone with arachnophobia will likely experience intense, overwhelming and irrational fear, anxiety or panic when faced with a spider or other arachnids.
Arachnophobia can result in avoidance behaviours, whereby a person avoids certain places or situations to reduce the risk of them encountering a spider. For example, they may avoid spending time outdoors or any events associated with Halloween. Avoidance behaviours can negatively impact their social life and their relationships, as well as their ability to carry out everyday tasks.
Arachnophobia differs from a general fear of spiders. Many people dislike spiders and try to avoid them where possible. However, their fear of spiders will likely not have a significant impact on their life. A person with arachnophobia will experience fear and anxiety even when there is no real danger. They may also have difficulty concentrating or functioning in certain situations and find that their fear interferes with their day-to-day life. Some people find that they are consumed by thoughts of spiders or the fear that they will encounter a spider.
Even if you are aware that your fear of spiders and other arachnids is extreme and disproportionate to the danger, you will likely still be unable to control your fear and your physiological and psychological responses.
A person with arachnophobia will:
- Experience feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to manage.
- Experience fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the potential danger.
- Have a fear of spiders that lasts for at least six months.
- Have a fear of spiders that interferes with their day-to-day life, overall wellbeing or sense of safety.
Arachnophobia may have an evolutionary basis. Multiple research studies have shown that a fear of spiders may be innate, with babies as young as six months old showing stress or fear responses when shown a picture or video of a spider. Humans likely have an inherited stress reaction that helps us to quickly identify spiders as dangerous or creepy.
This innate response can predispose us to develop a phobia of spiders. The evolutionary basis for fearing spiders likely developed because of the risk spiders posed to our ancestors. Many spiders were considered dangerous to humans, and in fact, prehistoric spiders were bigger than spiders found today, with fossils indicating they were as big as a foot in length. This coupled with their poisonous fangs explains the innate aversion to spiders humans have as a result of our ancestors.
However, many people overcome this and go on to be comfortable with or indifferent to spiders. It could be that a combination of nature and nurture causes a fear of spiders.
A person who has arachnophobia won’t usually just be fearful of spiders that pose a danger, they will also fear small, non-poisonous spiders and even spiders who are not near them or are in secure cages or enclosures.
A fear of spiders may be connected to several different fears:
The fear of being bitten:
This is one of the main fears people with arachnophobia have. It could be as a result of stories we hear about spider bites from venomous spiders such as the black widow spider, the brown recluse spider, and the Brazilian wandering spider. Some spider bites can be fatal to humans, although this is extremely rare and there have been no reported fatalities from spider bites in the UK. For people with arachnophobia, the fear of being bitten by a spider is out of proportion with the actual likelihood and the associated risks.
The fear of a spider infestation:
Many people fear spiders infesting their homes and fear finding any spiders or spiderwebs in or around their homes. This can be extremely difficult in the UK, particularly during ‘spider season’ (September–October) when many spiders enter our homes to mate. Someone with arachnophobia may fear a spider laying eggs in their home and may take extreme measures to prevent this from happening, such as refusing to open any windows or doors.
The fear of spiders’ eight legs:
The many legs and quick and erratic movements of spiders are often cited as what people hate about them the most. Spiders can crawl up walls and ceilings, squeeze into tiny areas and move very quickly, making them difficult to catch or kill. These features make spiders seem creepy and even scary and can cause someone to develop a fear of spiders.
Arachnophobia can exist on its own, or in conjunction with other phobias, including:
- Entomophobia: An extreme fear of insects.
- Daknophobia: An extreme fear of being bitten.
- Toxiphobia: An extreme fear of poison or being poisoned.
- Apiphobia: An extreme fear of bees.
- Myrmecophobia: An extreme fear of ants.
- Spheksophobia: An extreme fear of wasps.
How common is arachnophobia
Arachnophobia is one of the most well-known and common specific phobias. It is not known exactly how many people experience arachnophobia, but up to 75% of people report being scared or uncomfortable around spiders.
However, negative thoughts and emotions about spiders can occur on a spectrum, ranging from low levels of fear and anxiety to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact your ability to function in your day-to-day life and can impact your decision-making and result in avoidance behaviours of certain places, situations or objects. This can make it difficult to determine exactly how many people are experiencing a true phobia and how many are experiencing fear.
It is thought that between 3% and 5% of people experience true arachnophobia, which equates to between 2 million and 3.3 million people across the UK. Although arachnophobia is a well-known phobia, many people with the condition do not seek a diagnosis. Instead, they try to avoid spiders and any places or situations where they may encounter spiders. This can make it difficult to accurately determine how many people have arachnophobia.
Who is at risk of arachnophobia?
Although anyone can develop arachnophobia, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of you developing the phobia.
These can include:
- Having another related phobia, such as entomophobia or daknophobia.
- Having a previously negative or traumatic encounter with spiders.
- Having little day-to-day contact with spiders or living in an area with fewer spiders (such as a big city).
- Having a history of anxiety, depression, panic attacks or another relevant mental health disorder.
- Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with arachnophobia.
- Having a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
- Being exposed to a fear of spiders or arachnids during childhood or adolescence.
- Being a naturally more anxious or fearful person.
- Experiencing high levels of stress or a significant life stressor.
- Having a substance use disorder.
- Being part of a culture or religion that portrays spiders negatively.
The majority of those diagnosed with arachnophobia are females, with a diagnosis being three times more likely in females compared to males. However, it is unknown whether these figures represent a true gender difference or whether other factors are affecting diagnostic rates.
Arachnophobia can develop at any age. However, symptoms usually first manifest during childhood or adolescence, although a second peak is also observed during the early to mid-twenties.
It is important to note that even if you have one or more of the above risk factors, this does not mean you will definitely develop arachnophobia. Some people with an intense fear of spiders have no risk factors and cannot associate their phobia with a specific source. Other people may have several risk factors but never develop arachnophobia, for example, they may live in an inner city area with few spider encounters and have a parent who has arachnophobia. However, they may never develop a fear of spiders themselves.
How to deal with arachnophobia
Many people with arachnophobia think that the best way to deal with their phobia is to avoid their triggers and reduce the likelihood of them experiencing symptoms. However, although avoidance behaviours may seem like they are effective in preventing a phobic response, they can actually have a significant impact on your life, particularly if they cause you to avoid places, situations and events where you could encounter spiders.
Failure to address your phobia could also cause you to experience more severe symptoms in the future, and because it is almost impossible for you to completely avoid spiders, with many of them making an appearance in our homes, gardens and garages, this can cause you to experience more severe symptoms in the future when you are faced with a spider.
Learning how to deal with the symptoms of your arachnophobia can help you to reduce the impact of your phobia on your day-to-day life and improve your overall wellbeing. You can learn and implement effective long-term and short-term coping strategies to reduce or alleviate the frequency and severity of your symptoms and reduce the negative impact your phobia has on your life. Coping strategies can also help you to manage your arachnophobia more successfully and reduce avoidance behaviours in the future.
Some long-term and short-term coping strategies that are effective in dealing with arachnophobia are:
Learn about your phobia
Think about what initially caused the onset of your symptoms and caused you to develop arachnophobia to allow you to address the root of your phobia. You should also consider what your triggers are and which of your triggers result in more severe symptoms. Learning about your phobia can help you to understand your fear of spiders and rationalise your thoughts and emotions. This can help you to manage your symptoms more effectively in the future and address any negative patterns of thought that exist around spiders and other arachnids.
Many people think of spiders as being more dangerous than they actually are. Thinking of spiders as being dangerous, harmful or evil can create a bigger fear response. Learning facts and information about spiders, such as the percentage of spider species that are not venomous to humans (99.33%) and what spiders actually do when faced with humans can help you to rationalise your thoughts and disrupt your negative thought patterns. Focusing on facts, rather than negative stories, memories or depictions, can help you to manage your phobia.
Create a fear ladder
A fear ladder can help you to analyse and understand your fear of spiders and determine whether certain triggers create more severe fear, anxiety and panic than others. A fear ladder involves organising your triggers from least severe to most severe. For example, your fear ladder can look like this:
- 1 = Holding a spider in your hands.
- 2 = Being in the same room as a spider.
- 3 = Seeing a spider in a cage or enclosure (such as in a zoo or pet store).
- 4 = Talking about your previous encounters with spiders.
- 5 = Watching a video of a spider.
- 6 = Seeing a picture of a spider.
Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then tackle your triggers one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the situation that results in the lowest phobic response). This can help you to build up the tolerance of your triggers gradually.
Avoid negative or traumatic stories about spiders or negative media depictions
Hearing negative stories in the news, on social media or from family and friends can be distressing and can worsen your phobia. Additionally, watching a film or TV show where spiders are depicted as dangerous or evil can also worsen your phobia and increase your negative thoughts and your fear response. Avoid negative stories surrounding spiders (where possible) by turning off the TV and informing family and friends of your fears.
Employ distraction techniques
When confronted with arachnids or if you are in a triggering situation, utilising distraction techniques can help you to reduce your phobic response and prevent your symptoms from escalating. There are a variety of distraction techniques you could implement so consider which techniques are most likely to work for you. Some examples include listening to music, engaging in conversation, reading, playing a game or focusing on something external, such as other people.
Employ visualisation techniques
Visualisation is another effective way of reducing the symptoms of your phobia. Visualisation can be both a coping and a calming strategy. When faced with spiders or in a situation where your phobia is triggered, visualising a place or memory that keeps you calm or elicits positive emotions can help to alleviate your symptoms.
Practise deep breathing techniques
Deep breathing has been proven to be an effective way of lowering your stress levels, relieving tension in your body and reducing anxiety and panic. Deep breathing sends a message to your brain to relax and calm down. It can also help you to control your central nervous system, which is central to your phobic responses. Practise deep breathing regularly, as part of your daily routine and implement the strategies you have learnt if you encounter spiders in the future.
Practise yoga, meditation or mindfulness
Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are long-term coping and calming strategies that you can implement to teach you how to control your breathing and manage your body’s response to your triggers. This can help you to feel more in control and calm and reduce the physiological and psychological responses you may have when faced with your triggers in the future. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are long-term coping strategies that can improve your arachnophobia over a period of time.
Implement lifestyle changes
Multiple lifestyle factors have been found to exacerbate the symptoms of phobias, including arachnophobia. Making some important lifestyle changes can help to reduce your phobic response. For example, lack of sleep and increased stress can exacerbate your anxiety and make your physical and psychological symptoms worse. Implementing a sleep routine and taking steps to reduce your everyday stress can help to reduce the short-term and long-term severity of your phobia. Other lifestyle factors that could help you deal with your arachnophobia include eating a healthy, balanced diet and increasing the amount of exercise you do.
What triggers arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia can have different triggers for different people. Your triggers can vary, depending on what initially caused you to develop a fear of spiders, your perception of danger, the severity of your symptoms and your current mental health and mindset.
Even if your phobia is triggered by multiple things, you can experience different symptoms in response to different triggers, with some triggers resulting in a more severe phobic response than others.
Some of the most common triggers of arachnophobia include:
- Seeing a spider or another arachnid.
- Seeing a spiderweb or cobwebs.
- Feeling like something is crawling on you.
- Thinking about spiders or other arachnids.
- Entering spider mating season when spiders are more likely to be found in the home.
- Hearing a sound you associate with spiders, such as a scuttling sound.
- Being in a place where spiders are typically found, such as wooded and forested areas and basements and garages.
- Seeing something that looks like a spider or spiderweb or reminds you of a spider or spiderweb.
- Going to a Halloween event or seeing Halloween decorations that contain spiders and spiderwebs.
- Seeing spiders in a cage or enclosure, such as in a zoo or pet shop.
- Watching a video or seeing a picture that contains a spider or other arachnid.
- Hearing a frightening story about spiders.
What are the symptoms of arachnophobia?
The symptoms of arachnophobia can vary in incidence, manifestation and severity from person to person. This variation could be a result of different triggers, the perceived risk and threat of danger, the individual’s current mental and emotional health and wellbeing and any treatments they are undergoing or coping strategies they have implemented.
Some people with arachnophobia experience mild symptoms, whereas others experience more severe symptoms. It could also be that your symptoms are more severe at certain times, compared to others.
If a person with arachnophobia encounters a spider, their fear often causes them to overestimate the spider’s size, making the spider appear scarier and more threatening. This can cause their symptoms to worsen.
The symptoms of arachnophobia can be similar to the symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Some people with severe arachnophobia do experience panic attacks when faced with spiders.
The symptoms of arachnophobia can be both physiological and psychological and can include:
- Tightness in your chest, chest pain or feeling like something is stuck in your chest.
- A rapid heart rate, heart palpitations or feeling like your heart is pounding.
- Breathing difficulties, shallow breathing or rapid breathing.
- Unusual or excessive sweating.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Chills or flushing.
- Nausea, vomiting, upset stomach or a nervous feeling in your stomach (commonly referred to as butterflies).
- Dizziness or light-headedness.
- A dry mouth.
- A choking sensation, difficulty swallowing or feeling like something is stuck in your throat.
- Muscle tension.
- Unusual or severe headaches.
- Unusual fatigue or insomnia.
- Unusual sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures.
- Elevated blood pressure.
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Unusual numbness or tingling.
- A lack of appetite, particularly in triggering situations.
- Overwhelming fear, anxiety or panic when faced with a spider or another trigger.
- Fear, anxiety or panic that is out of proportion to the true risks.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours, such as avoiding places, situations or social events where you might encounter a spider.
- Feeling uncomfortable in your own home, in case there is a spider inside.
- Worsening fear and anxiety as a spider gets closer or an encounter impends.
- Difficulty concentrating or functioning normally.
- Experiencing frequent or distressing nightmares about spiders.
- Feeling defenceless or vulnerable or like you are trapped and are unable to escape.
- Being unable to control your negative thoughts or feelings, even if you are aware that they are out of proportion with the danger.
- Having a sense of impending doom.
- Feeling like you are going to die.
Symptoms in Children:
The symptoms of arachnophobia can manifest differently in children compared to adults. Some of the common symptoms that occur in children include:
- Screaming or having a tantrum.
- Clinging to a parent, guardian or another safe person.
- Trying to run away or hide.
- Shaking or trembling.
- Extreme anxiety, fear or panic.
What causes arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia has many possible causes. Different people have different experiences of what caused their phobia to develop. It could be that your phobia has one clear cause, or that multiple factors contributed to you developing a phobia of spiders and other arachnids.
It may be that you find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused you to develop arachnophobia. However, being aware of the origin of your fear can help you to address the root cause and any negative patterns of thought or negative feelings that are attached to the initial onset of your phobia. This can make it easier to treat your phobia and for you to cope with your symptoms.
Some of the most common causes of arachnophobia are:
A negative or traumatic experience involving spiders
Intense fears usually stem from previous negative or traumatic experiences. This is known as a direct learning experience or traumatic conditioning. The event that caused the traumatic conditioning may not actually have involved real danger. However, as long as significant fear, distress or trauma was involved, this could lead to the development of a phobia. A traumatic experience may include being bitten by a spider, finding a spider on your face or body and being unable to get it off, or feeling trapped in a room or space with a spider with no way to escape. Following the traumatic event, you may begin to experience intrusive and negative reminders or memories of the trauma and begin to avoid trauma-related triggers, which causes the fear or anxiety you felt at the time to linger or worsen.
Media depictions of spiders
Spiders are primarily depicted in a negative, evil or scary way in popular culture. Popular children’s films, such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter depict spiders as being scary and dangerous and there are multiple horror movies, such as Arachnophobia, Eight Legged Freaks and The Mist which also capitalise on the danger and fear that are often associated with spiders. Being exposed to these negative cultural depictions, particularly during childhood and adolescence, can cause a person to attach negative connotations to spiders and associate them with danger, death and fear.
Cultural depictions of spiders
Arachnophobia is significantly more prominent in Europe, the USA and Canada, even though the biggest and most venomous spiders are often found in other countries, such as Brazil, Africa and Australia. This could be because of cultural attitudes to spiders and the differences in the way they are depicted and feared in these countries. Occurrences of arachnophobia are statistically lower in countries that eat spiders, such as Cambodia, and countries where they are taught about spiders, rather than just taught to fear them.
An informational learning experience
Being exposed to information that scares you or creates feelings of anxiety, for example discovering facts about the number of poisonous spider species in the UK and around the world, the number of spider species that can bite humans or the number of people who have died following a spider bite, can result in you developing fear or anxiety surrounding spiders. This can then develop into arachnophobia.
A learned phobia
Phobias can develop because of an observational learning experience, meaning you observed a fear of spiders in another person and learnt to associate spiders with fear or danger. You are more likely to learn a phobia if you are exposed to it during childhood or adolescence. In fact, children who grow up with a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with arachnophobia are more likely to develop the condition themselves.
This is when you engage in repetitive negative thought processes and persistently and/or repetitively recap a traumatic or scary experience involving spiders. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly distressing and intrusive and can make you think of spiders as being traumatic, painful or scary. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses and can result in you developing arachnophobia.
Experiencing significant stress
Significant, long-term stress can result in a disproportionate fear response or an inability to manage intense situations. This can make it more likely that you will develop a phobia, particularly if you have a negative experience with a spider while you are experiencing higher levels of stress. A stressful and distressing event, such as a death, can also trigger a phobia, as people may be less able to manage their emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief.
How is arachnophobia diagnosed?
Although arachnophobia is a well-known phobia, it is still thought to be underdiagnosed, with the number of people who currently have a diagnosis being far below the true figures of the number of people who have arachnophobia. Some people with arachnophobia may not realise their symptoms are severe enough to classify as a phobia or they may not seek a diagnosis because they do not know that treatments can help their condition.
Although many people are afraid of spiders, experiencing negative patterns of thought, or fear, anxiety or panic when faced with a spider, even if there is no or minimal risk to you, could mean that you are experiencing arachnophobia.
You are likely to be experiencing a phobia if:
- Your fear and anxiety are out of proportion to the actual risks.
- Your fear impacts your ability to function in your everyday life or in certain situations.
- Your thoughts and feelings surrounding arachnids have a negative impact on your quality of life.
- Your symptoms occur when faced with your triggers or when thinking about spiders.
- Your fear or anxiety results in avoidance behaviours.
- Your fear has a negative impact on your mental health or wellbeing.
To pursue a diagnosis, your first step will be to visit your GP. Your GP will ask about your symptoms and your experiences with spiders. To determine whether you are experiencing arachnophobia, your GP may look at your medical history, including whether you have previously experienced an anxiety disorder, panic disorder or another phobia or extreme fear and any other medical conditions you are diagnosed with. Your GP may also ask whether you have a family history of arachnophobia or other phobias. They will also look at any medication or supplements you take, to ensure nothing else is responsible for your symptoms.
Although GPs can diagnose phobias, in many cases they will refer you to a psychologist or another mental health professional, who is able to spend more time talking through your experiences and symptoms.
The psychologist will likely perform a phobia questionnaire to look at:
- Your triggers.
- The type of symptoms you experience.
- The frequency and severity of your symptoms.
- How much your phobia interferes with your everyday life.
- When your phobia began and what caused the onset of symptoms.
Arachnophobia is a type of specific phobia which means it is a lasting, overwhelming and unreasonable fear of a specific object, situation, activity or person, in this situation an overwhelming fear of spiders. Other examples of specific phobias include ophidiophobia, an extreme fear of snakes, claustrophobia, an extreme fear of crowded or confined spaces, and acrophobia, an extreme fear of heights.
To achieve a diagnosis of arachnophobia, the symptoms of your phobia will be compared to the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias.
Your symptoms will need to fit into the seven key criteria for specific phobias listed below:
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when arachnids are present or when they are not present.
2. Exposure to a spider or another arachnid leads to an immediate anxiety response in the majority of situations.
3. The fear is excessive and disproportionate to the threat, and this is recognised by the individual.
4. The individual avoids places or situations where spiders could be present. If a spider is present, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of spiders and the avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding spiders can have a significant impact on the individual’s day-to-day life.
6. The fear has lasted for a minimum of six months.
7. The phobia is not associated with another disorder or mental health condition.
If your symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria, you will receive a diagnosis of arachnophobia. Depending on the severity of your phobia, you may be offered treatment.
How is arachnophobia treated?
There are multiple treatment options available for people with arachnophobia. However, not all people with arachnophobia require treatment. If your symptoms are mild, you have implemented successful coping strategies or your phobia doesn’t significantly impact your day-to-day life and your wellbeing, you may not require official treatment.
However, if your fear of arachnids results in avoidance behaviours, where you avoid certain places and situations, if it impacts on your day-to-day life or wellbeing, occurs frequently or causes distress, treatment may be advised.
Your doctor will create a personalised and effective treatment plan based on the cause of your phobia, your symptoms and your triggers.
Some of the considerations that will be made when creating your treatment plan include:
- How severe your symptoms are and how frequently they occur.
- What the root cause of your phobia is.
- How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
- Your overall health and wellbeing, including your mental health.
The most common and effective treatment options for arachnophobia are:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):
CBT is a type of psychotherapy commonly referred to as talk therapy. Sessions can be conducted individually or as part of a group with other people with arachnophobia. CBT focuses on managing your phobia by changing the way you think, feel and behave in relation to spiders.
The aim will be to change the way you think about spiders so that you no longer consider them dangerous or scary. This is done by changing your negative thought patterns and the feelings and behaviours these thought patterns cause. This can help you to reduce your physiological and psychological responses to your triggers.
In your CBT sessions, you will:
- Discuss your triggers and symptoms.
- Explore what caused your fear of arachnids.
- Explore your fears in more detail.
- Learn how to recognise your negative thoughts and change the way you are thinking.
- Learn coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.
Also known as systematic desensitisation, exposure therapy involves being gradually exposed to your fears in a safe, controlled environment, Gradual and repeated exposure aims to remove the fear and danger you have associated with spiders and to reduce your fear and anxiety responses so that you can eventually be around spiders without experiencing symptoms.
As part of your sessions, the psychologist will create a unique plan based on your triggers and the severity of your symptoms. They will assess your phobia and create a fear ladder of scenarios and situations that are the least to the most triggering.
They will employ relaxation techniques to ensure you are in a relaxed and comfortable state. They will then begin your exposure gradually, with a situation that creates the least phobic response, for example, talking about spiders or looking at a picture of a spider. Once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you will then progress to the next level. You will eventually lead up to being close to a spider or holding a spider.
Clinical hypnotherapy is used to treat and alleviate a variety of conditions, including phobias. It can help to reduce stress and anxiety responses by putting you in a deeply relaxed state while thinking about and talking about your phobia and your triggers.
The sessions will utilise a combination of guided relaxation techniques and focused attention. They can help you to identify the root cause of your fear and help you change your thought patterns and any negative feelings you have about spiders. Hypnotherapy helps you to change your perception of spiders and reduce your phobic response.
Hypnotherapy can repattern your thoughts, memories and feelings towards arachnids. It can also teach you calming strategies, such as deep breathing and relaxation techniques, which can help you to reduce your symptoms in the future.
Medications are not used to treat arachnophobia directly, although they can be used if you also experience anxiety or depression alongside your phobia. Some medications you may be offered include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Anti-anxiety medication.