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It is reported that approximately 1 in 23 people suffer from some sort of phobia. In the UK, this equates to around 2.5 million sufferers or just over 4% of the population! However, the NHS actually thinks that this is an underestimate and that about 10 million people in the UK have some sort of phobia.
There are many common phobias with which we are familiar. For example, claustrophobia (the fear of small, enclosed spaces), agoraphobia (the fear of large open spaces), aerophobia (the fear of flying) and arachnophobia (the fear of spiders). However, a lesser-known phobia is chiroptophobia – the fear of bats.
What is chiroptophobia?
Firstly, it’s important to note that any defined phobia is more than just a fear. It is an irrational and/or illogical response. A person who experiences a phobia may suffer from extreme anxiety just at the mere thought of experiencing something. In the case of chiroptophobia, this is bats.
Chiroptera is a mammalian order in the animal kingdom, the second largest after rodents. The word stems from the description of animals that have wings where their hands would be and literally means ‘hand wing’ from the Greek chiro and ptera. Therefore, chiroptophobia is the intense and irrational fear of bats.
For some people, even merely reading the word could be a trigger. Thoughts surrounding the animal may be both intrusive and debilitating and can lead to full-blown anxiety and panic attacks.
How common is chiroptophobia?
Chiroptophobia is not a very common fear. In fact, most people have not heard of the word before. However, with over 1,400 species of bats worldwide, the fear of bats is debilitating for some. Thankfully, given that bats are generally nocturnal, generally people with chiroptophobia are able to avoid coming face-to-face with their fears.
Who is at risk of chiroptophobia?
It is impossible to predict or identify someone being at risk of chiroptophobia. However, as mentioned above, someone who is prone to anxiety or who has mental health problems is more likely to develop a phobia such as chiroptophobia. Having said that, the risk of this phobia being one specifically of bats is very minimal unless someone is exposed to an environmental trigger that specifically includes bats.
How to deal with chiroptophobia
Chiroptophobia is often managed by reducing triggers, managing symptoms and combining these with treatment. Knowing what someone’s triggers are and pre-warning them of potential exposure to bats or pictures of bats can help someone manage their phobia.
What triggers chiroptophobia?
Given that phobias are irrational by their very nature, what triggers chiroptophobia may seem completely irrational to other people. Triggers can be as simple as reading the word bat or seeing a picture of a cartoon bat displayed at Halloween.
Triggers for chiroptophobia actually rarely involve real-life bats. This is not only because bats tend to be nocturnal but also because those who suffer from chiroptophobia tend to avoid places where they could encounter the creatures, including the countryside at dusk or after dark, caves and certain enclosures in zoos or nature reserves.
Essentially, chiroptophobia can come down to a fear of the unknown or misinformation when it comes to bats. For example, people think that bats are blind and that they fly aimlessly so they can get themselves tangled up in your hair, for example. People are also more often afraid of things that come out at night or that are rarely seen, and bats certainly fall into this category.
What are the symptoms of chiroptophobia?
Symptoms of chiroptophobia are often synonymous with the symptoms that someone experiences with other phobias but are triggered by the sight, sound or thought of a bat.
The symptoms include:
- Intense feelings of anxiety when thinking of bats.
- Intense feelings of anxiety at the sight of a bat.
- Panic attacks.
- Increased breathing rate.
- Increased heart rate.
- Increased sweating.
- Muscle tension.
- Inability to cope with strong emotions.
- Being unable to go to a place that may be associated with bats or where bats might be seen.
- Being unable to watch nature documentaries or TV programmes where bats might be seen.
- Being unable to take part in Halloween or spooky activities in case pictures of bats are present.
What causes chiroptophobia?
There is no one specific cause of chiroptophobia. The phobia most often arises after an intense or bad experience with bats or as a result of seeing bats on television, for example. Therefore, it can be said that chiroptophobia has environmental causes rather than biological ones.
Having said that, you may find an increased incidence of chiroptophobia in people who are genetically predisposed to anxiety or other mental illnesses. It is a well-known fact that people who have anxiety disorders have an increased chance of going on to develop one or more phobias. So, it stands to reason that a family history of such conditions could make chiroptophobia more likely to develop in certain people. That said, there is nearly always a clear trigger for the phobia in a sufferer.
In particular, traumatic experiences with bats are typically the cause of chiroptophobia. This could be having been bitten by a bat or being spooked and surrounded by many bats at once which has left the person fearful. Experiences such as these can leave long-lasting imprints which lead to chiroptophobia.
As mentioned, it is possible to develop such a phobia without having had a direct traumatic experience. For example, watching a documentary about bats could lead a person to have a dream or nightmare involving them, or reading about specific species of bats that thrive on animal blood may create a negative pathway in the brain that leads to a fear of all types of bats. Of course, this also ties in with the popular cultural view of bats being associated with vampires and it stands to reason that if someone is fearful or has a phobia of vampires or Halloween, for example, then chiroptophobia is often associated with it too.
How is chiroptophobia diagnosed?
Chiroptophobia isn’t usually something that is diagnosed by a health professional. Rather, it is often self-diagnosed or could be diagnosed by a psychologist if the case is severe enough. Simply put, if someone has an intense and irrational fear of bats rather than simply not liking the creatures, it’s safe to say they have chiroptophobia.
How is chiroptophobia treated?
There are no treatments that are specifically designed with a fear of bats in mind. Rather, treatments for phobias in general should be considered.
These treatments usually fall into the following categories:
- Exposure therapy.
- Psychiatric medication.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
- Dialectal behaviour therapy (DBT).
- Reducing stimulants such as caffeine.
Exposure therapy is exactly what it says it is – exposure to the trigger of the phobia. In the case of chiroptophobia, this means exposing oneself to bats. This is one of the most common forms of treatment for phobias.
Exposure therapy is very well controlled. The person is exposed to the trigger very gradually. The first step would certainly not be to bring a live bat into their company. It would usually be looking at still pictures of bats before moving on to videos, for example.
This step is likely to produce intense anxiety, but it is not designed to be destructive. The theory is that the more that someone is exposed to their trigger, the less of an impact the trigger will have. Eventually it’ll be ‘just another picture of a bat’ that will not produce a reaction. Essentially, the person needs to ‘rewire’ their thinking around the stimulus of a bat and therefore their behaviour pattern will alter.
This type of therapy needs to be done very carefully and by an experienced professional. Too little exposure and it won’t work, too much and it could be immensely distressing and counterproductive.
There are several medications that can help someone with a profound phobia that affects their day-to-day life including anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants. Some common antidepressants include Fluoxetine, Citalopram and Sertraline. Normally, these medications are taken daily, and they should help to reduce how extreme a person’s symptoms are and can reduce or prevent panic attacks.
Anti-anxiety medications can also help to reduce the symptoms associated with panicky feelings that a trigger can produce in a chiroptophobe. These include beta-blocker medications such as Propranolol and benzodiazepines such as Valium or Xanax.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT is an intervention that works on a psycho-social level. It is used for all sorts of reasons but primarily it works to improve someone’s mental health. CBT is often used to treat conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or simply anxiety and depression.
CBT works by allowing the person to have a better understanding of their thoughts and their body’s response to them and to other stimuli. Because the reactions of someone with chiroptophobia are automatic, CBT can be incredibly helpful. Quite often, people with phobias lack introspection into their condition and this is why they often suffer so extremely in response to a trigger. CBT can help them to analyse their fears and step back a little. Learning about their fears alongside learning techniques to manage reactions can be extremely useful for someone with chiroptophobia.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
This is a specific programme that usually lasts around eight weeks. It offers mindfulness training to help people who suffer from a range of psychological conditions including stress, anxiety and depression as well as phobias.
MBSR aims to help by offering a structured way to learn a range of skills that help to relieve intense anxiety associated with chiroptophobia.
Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT)
This type of behaviour therapy is very effective for people who struggle to regulate their emotions. For this reason, sufferers of borderline personality disorder often benefit from this form of therapy. It can also be of benefit to sufferers of chiroptophobia too.
One simple yet effective DBT skill that can help sufferers of chiroptophobia is the half-smile. In essence, a person thinks about their trigger (in our case, bats) and consciously slightly raises the corners of their mouth and smiles slightly. However, it isn’t as simple as half-smiling and hoping the fear will go away, and it’s also important to try and resist going down the rabbit hole of painful emotions that the fear brings up.
Practitioners have used hypnotherapy for centuries as a way of bringing on strong feelings of relaxation. A typical session would involve the therapist guiding a person through some exercises including deep breathing and/or guided visualisation. The exercises induce extreme relaxation and aim to re-programme automatic responses to stimuli.
Therapists also help to uncover the root cause of the phobia which may be beneficial, especially when thinking about it in a relaxed state. The hypnotherapy desensitises the person to the phobia. This is because the person’s subconscious is much more accepting of suggestions than the conscious mind is. As a result, the person ends up feeling more in control of their phobia.
Meditation comes in many different forms. Certain forms can be a successful treatment option for people who suffer from chiroptophobia. Mindfulness meditation is one such technique as it allows the person to enter into a ‘more equanimous state’.
Mindfulness meditation can help chiroptophobia sufferers through focussed distraction from the fear by refocussing their attention onto other things that do not bring as many other emotions with them. For example, focussing on one’s breathing means that the person is distracted from triggers or potential triggers in the environment. This is a simple form of meditation.
If someone is in the middle of an anxiety attack due to being triggered by the sight or thought of a bat, redirecting their focus on their breathing can help reduce their symptoms and the strong emotional response that they are feeling.
Physical activity has many, many benefits, one of which is reducing stress. Cardiovascular exercise is a known stress reliever. This is because it releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins in the brain.
By exercising, the mind is better able to cope with stress and difficult situations. Therefore, when a person is triggered by the image of a bat, for example, they are better able to cope. Exercising is therefore a great way of reducing symptoms. It is not often a cure-all approach, but in combination with other methods and treatments, it may help to reduce the intensity of the phobia.
Yoga involves being in a relaxed and meditative state if it is practised consistently. People often refer to it as mediation with motions. As such, it can help to relieve the symptoms of chiroptophobia.
It’s no surprise that drinking a lot of caffeine makes you more anxious. Therefore, reducing one’s caffeine intake can reduce the anxiety associated with chiroptophobia. If we look at the effects that caffeine has on the body, it may help us to understand why caffeine and other stimulants increase anxiety.
When someone drinks a lot of caffeine, the heart begins to beat faster, and the muscles tense up. Our body is tricked into going into a ‘fight or flight’ state. Being in this state is often what happens before someone is triggered by their chiroptophobia, leading into a panic attack.
However, by reducing caffeine consumption, the person will have a more relaxed state generally. Their body won’t be as ready to fly into action and respond negatively when faced with a trigger. It is unlikely to make all anxiety disappear, but it can help to reduce anxiety levels or feelings of panic. Drinks that contain high amounts of caffeine include coffee, tea, cola and energy drinks. Dark chocolate also contains high amounts of caffeine.
Chiroptophobia, the irrational fear of bats, is a rare but distressing condition. However, there are many effective treatments to manage it. Usually, a chiroptophobe will need a combination of treatments to treat their condition.
Whilst it is possible to become completely cured of the phobia, it takes time and significant work. Many times, treatment aims to reduce the severity of the phobia rather than reduce it completely. If you are suffering from a phobia such as chiroptophobia, there are organisations that can help.