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Herpetophobia, an extreme and overwhelming fear of reptiles, is a type of animal phobia. Some people think that because there are few reptiles in the UK and seeing a reptile is not an everyday occurrence, herpetophobia does not significantly impact a person’s life. However, this phobia can result in severe psychological, behavioural and physical symptoms.
Today, we are going to look at herpetophobia in more detail, including the common causes, triggers, symptoms and treatments.
What is herpetophobia?
Herpetophobia is the extreme, irrational, overwhelming and persistent fear of reptiles. Someone with this phobia will likely experience extreme fear, anxiety or panic if they see, hear or touch a reptile or something that reminds them of a reptile or if they think about or talk about a reptile.
Someone with herpetophobia may experience fear or anxiety in relation to all reptiles, or only specific reptiles, such as:
Herpetophobia is a type of specific phobia that is characterised by an enduring, overwhelming and irrational fear of a specific object, situation, place or person; in this case, an extreme fear of reptiles. It is also commonly classified as a type of animal phobia.
Reptiles can be so anxiety-provoking that someone with herpetophobia may experience intense anxiety and fear at the thought of them. They may be unable to think about reptiles reasonably or rationally and may be out of touch with reality regarding how much of a danger reptiles pose to them.
Reptiles are cold-blooded animals that are usually scaly. They are usually four-limbed, or they have evolved from animals that have four limbs (as is the case with snakes). Herpetophobia is considered to be an evolutionary phobia, in that humans have likely evolved to be predisposed to a fear of reptiles. Studies suggest that humans may be conditioned to fear reptiles because many reptiles would have been poisonous or threatening to our ancestors.
A fear of reptiles, particularly those that are poisonous, fast, large or heavy, likely developed as a survival mechanism for our ancestors. In reality, very few reptiles actually pose a risk to humans, particularly in the UK where there is only one known venomous snake. However, a predisposition to a fear of reptiles can result in someone being afraid of all reptiles, regardless of how dangerous or harmless they are.
Although many people dislike reptiles and may be afraid of reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles, this doesn’t mean that they are experiencing herpetophobia. A phobia of reptiles differs from a fear of reptiles because the fear is irrational and overwhelming.
An individual who has herpetophobia won’t usually just be fearful of reptiles that pose a danger; they may also fear small, non-venomous snakes and reptiles that are considered harmless, such as chameleons and turtles.
To be classified as herpetophobia, your fear of reptiles will include:
- Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are difficult to manage.
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the true risk.
- A fear of reptiles that lasts for at least six months.
- Engaging in avoidance behaviours to prevent encounters with reptiles.
- A fear of reptiles that interferes with your day-to-day life, overall well-being or sense of safety.
- Experiencing anticipatory anxiety or worry when thinking about encountering reptiles.
Someone with herpetophobia may have difficulties functioning normally in certain places or situations, because of the fear that they could encounter a reptile.
They may become consumed with the thought of reptiles and find themselves being hyperaware and constantly checking there are no reptiles around them, even in places or situations where reptiles are not commonly found. The fear, anxiety and panic that they feel can have a significant impact on their mental and emotional well-being and their behaviour.
The fear of seeing a reptile can also result in avoidance behaviours, where someone avoids any place or situation where they think there is a possibility of encountering a reptile. For example, they may refuse to walk in long grass or in wooded areas or go to places where reptiles are usually found, such as zoos and pet shops.
Someone with herpetophobia may also refuse to go to other people’s houses or new restaurants in case they have a pet reptile.
Avoidance behaviours can make it difficult for you to perform everyday tasks or function normally in society. Although avoidance behaviours are designed to help you avoid reptiles and prevent you from experiencing negative thoughts and feelings and adverse symptoms, they can actually have a paradoxical effect. Instead of helping you to manage or reduce your symptoms, avoiding reptiles and any place or situation where you could encounter reptiles can actually have the opposite effect and instead reinforce your fear and result in more severe symptoms in the future.
Avoidance behaviours can also negatively impact your social life and professional life, your relationships and your ability to function normally.
Because herpetophobia is an individualised phobia, it can be connected to several different fears concerning reptiles.
These could include:
- The fear of being attacked by a reptile
This is one of the main fears people have concerning reptiles and most likely stems from the fear of reptiles that are venomous or large, heavy or fast enough to attack or kill a human. There are many reptiles which are considered to be dangerous to humans. For example:
– Inland Taipans: The most poisonous reptile with venom that is 400 times more deadly than a rattlesnake.
– King Cobras: The largest poisonous snake which releases enough venom in one bite to kill 20 humans and can grow to 5 metres.
– Saltwater Crocodiles: The largest known reptile that grows up to 7 metres and 1,500kg. They have the strongest bite of all reptiles.
– Alligator Snapping Turtles: Weighing up to 100kg with a strong bite.
– Black Mamba: A type of snake with powerful venom that can slither at a rate of 12mph, faster than most humans.
– Komodo Dragons: At 10 feet in length and weighing approximately 70kg, a Komodo dragon has strong serrated teeth that can tear flesh while also injecting venom.
Many reptiles can fatally attack humans, most often snakes, crocodiles and alligators. Every year, approximately 2.7 million people are bitten by venomous snakes and up to 140,000 people die from snake bites. However, most of these injuries and fatalities occur in Asia, particularly India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There is a very low chance of being attacked or harmed by a reptile in the UK, particularly by wild reptiles.
- The fear of the ways reptiles move
Herpetophobia can stem from a dislike of the ways that reptiles move. Reptiles primarily have four legs (such as lizards) or no legs (such as snakes). Reptiles move by slithering, crawling and bending their bodies from side to side. These movements are often described as creepy and the slithering sound of snakes or the way that reptiles can crawl up walls and ceilings are disliked by many people. The movements of reptiles can be part of the reason why many people fear them.
- The dislike of a reptile’s scales
Humans are predisposed to like animals that are soft, furry and fluffy and dislike animals that are scaly, rough and hard to touch. The scaly skin of reptiles is the complete opposite of humans and other mammals, and this could be part of the reason why many people feel an aversion to scaly skin. Scales are also unpleasant to touch, and some people fear that they could be sharp to touch, or something could be hiding under a reptile’s skin, for example, venom.
- The fear of infections, parasites and bacteria
A common reason for many animal phobias is the fear that an animal will transmit a disease or infection. Reptiles can carry a range of germs, bacteria, viruses, parasites and worms that could be harmful to humans. Many reptiles carry the salmonella infection on their skin and in their digestive tract and many reptiles carry other germs that can make humans ill. Although transmission from reptiles to humans is not common, the possibility of this happening is enough to cause someone to develop a phobia of reptiles.
Even if you have herpetophobia, you may be aware that your fear of reptiles is irrational and that the chances you will encounter a dangerous reptile are extremely low. However, you may still find that you are unable to control your fear or anxiety and are unable to manage or prevent your physiological, psychological or behavioural responses to reptiles or the thought of reptiles.
Herpetophobia can be connected to and occur in conjunction with other phobias, such as:
- Ophidiophobia: An extreme fear of snakes.
- Zoophobia: An extreme fear of animals.
- Daknophobia: An extreme fear of being bitten.
- Amychophobia: An extreme fear of being scratched or lacerated.
- Toxiphobia: An extreme fear of poison and being poisoned.
- Thanatophobia: An extreme fear of death.
- Trypanophobia: An extreme fear of injections.
How common is herpetophobia?
Because herpetophobia is a type of specific phobia, any diagnoses of this condition will fall under the umbrella of specific phobias. This means there are no individual statistics available that show how many people have a phobia of reptiles.
Animal phobias are some of the most common types of specific phobias. Alongside a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), a fear of reptiles is one of the most common types of phobias. Although it is unknown how many people are diagnosed with herpetophobia, approximately 10% of the world’s population is thought to be afraid of snakes, which equates to 800 million people.
However, it is important to bear in mind that not everyone who is afraid of reptiles is experiencing herpetophobia.
Negative thoughts and feelings concerning reptiles can occur on a spectrum, ranging from mild fear and anxiety in certain situations (for example, if you see a snake close to you) to severe fear, panic and anxiety that can impact your day-to-day life, affect your decision-making and result in changes in your behaviour. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between people who are afraid of reptiles and those who have herpetophobia.
Approximately 5 million people in the UK are currently diagnosed with a specific phobia. However, it is thought these figures are not representative of the true statistics and that many people with phobias either never seek a diagnosis, are misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed. Similarly to other specific phobias, many people with herpetophobia never receive an official diagnosis for their condition.
There are several reasons why herpetophobia may go undiagnosed, such as:
- Many people who are afraid of reptiles have never heard of herpetophobia so may not realise they are experiencing a diagnosable medical condition.
- Many people are not aware that there are effective treatments available for phobias so may not seek a diagnosis.
- Someone with a phobia of reptiles may implement successful avoidance strategies that reduce their contact with reptiles. This can make their phobia seem more manageable.
- Someone with herpetophobia may not discuss their thoughts and feelings with others so may not realise that what they are experiencing is abnormal.
- Someone with herpetophobia may be embarrassed by their fear and the way it affects their life and may not want to speak to their GP or admit that they have a problem.
Who is at risk of herpetophobia?
Although anyone can develop herpetophobia, there are certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of someone developing a fear of reptiles.
- Having a previous negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience involving reptiles.
- Having a previous negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience involving another animal.
- Having little day-to-day contact with reptiles.
- Having another related phobia, such as ophidiophobia or daknophobia.
- Having another animal phobia.
- Being exposed to a fear of reptiles during childhood or adolescence.
- Having a close family member, for example, a parent or sibling, with herpetophobia.
- Having a close family member, for example, a parent or sibling, with another phobia.
- Hearing traumatic or scary stories about reptiles, for example, someone dying from a snake bite.
- Having another mental health condition, such as anxiety disorder or depression.
- Being a naturally more anxious or nervous person.
- Experiencing a significant life stressor, having higher than usual stress levels or being in a heightened mental state (particularly if you are exposed to a fear of reptiles or have a negative experience involving a reptile during this time).
- Having a substance use disorder, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
- Being exposed to negative portrayals of reptiles, for example, if you belong to a religion or culture where snakes are viewed negatively.
It is important to note that even though the above risk factors can increase the likelihood of you developing herpetophobia, they do not guarantee this. Someone with none of the above risk factors can develop the condition unexpectedly, whereas someone with several risk factors may never develop herpetophobia and may be comfortable around reptiles throughout their lives.
Although herpetophobia can manifest at any age, as with other phobias, you are more likely to develop a fear of reptiles during childhood or adolescence, particularly if you have a negative experience involving a reptile when you are young.
This is because children are less capable of managing fear and trauma. Trauma can also cause feelings of fear and anxiety that children are less able to cope with or negative thoughts that they can’t understand or rationalise. This can make them more likely than adults to develop a phobia.
How to deal with herpetophobia
Although effective treatment options are available, there are some coping and calming strategies you can implement, and combine with lifestyle factors, to help you successfully manage the symptoms of your phobia and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
Some coping and calming strategies are designed to be implemented long term, as part of your regular daily or weekly routine. Long-term strategies can help to reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms over time and enable you to be exposed to your triggers in the future without experiencing negative thoughts and feelings.
Short-term strategies are meant to be implemented in the moment – when you are faced with a reptile or another trigger. Short-term strategies are designed to minimise or prevent any physiological, psychological or behavioural symptoms from occurring and to prevent a triggering situation from worsening and your negative thoughts and feelings from taking over.
Some long-term and short-term strategies you can implement to help you deal with your phobia are:
- Understand your phobia
Thinking about your phobia in more detail and trying to understand the root cause of your phobia, your triggers and your symptoms can help you to successfully address the root cause of your fear and any negative patterns of thought, beliefs, feelings and behaviours that are attached to your phobia. By rationalising and understanding your phobia, you can reduce your automatic fear response, and reduce the frequency and severity of your symptoms.
- Visualise yourself overcoming your fear
Visualisation techniques can help you overcome your phobia and the fear and anxiety you experience in relation to reptiles. As part of this strategy, you will visualise yourself in triggering situations and imagine confronting your fear and successfully overcoming it. For example, you could imagine being in the same room as a lizard but remaining calm and positive throughout. Visualising positive encounters with reptiles can help to reassure your brain that reptiles don’t pose a threat to you and that you are not in any danger. This can make it less likely that you will experience an automatic fear response in the future.
Desensitisation is inspired by the concepts explored in exposure therapy. The process involves gradually exposing yourself to reptiles and other things that trigger your fear or anxiety. The more exposure you get the less intense your automatic fear response will be, meaning you will be less likely to experience negative symptoms if you see a reptile or are exposed to another trigger. This can reduce the impact your phobia has on your day-to-day life. Ensure desensitisation happens gradually in an environment where you feel calm and safe.
- Challenge negative thoughts and feelings
If you have herpetophobia, you may experience extreme distress or anxiety when thinking about or talking about reptiles or when remembering a previous (usually negative) experience with reptiles. If you find yourself thinking about reptiles negatively or experiencing negative emotions, try to disrupt your thoughts and feelings to prevent your fear from escalating. Remind yourself the risk from reptiles is minimal and that you aren’t in any danger. If you begin to experience negative symptoms, remind yourself that the feelings will soon pass and that your fear is disproportionate.
- Avoid negative superstitions or depictions of reptiles
There are many negative superstitions relating to snakes and negative portrayals of reptiles, such as snakes, crocodiles and alligators. Negative superstitions and portrayals can reinforce any negative connotations, beliefs or thoughts connected to reptiles. Negative superstitions can also result in you becoming hyperaware or paranoid that reptiles are around and can encourage avoidance behaviours. This can exacerbate your phobia and result in more severe phobic symptoms. Try to avoid any triggering portrayals or superstitions about reptiles to prevent your phobia from escalating.
- Create a fear ladder
A fear ladder can help you to analyse and understand your fear of reptiles and can also help you to identify which of your triggers creates more severe fear, anxiety and panic than others. When creating your fear ladder, your triggers will be organised from least severe to most severe. Because phobias are highly individualised, everyone’s fear ladder is different. Although your fear ladder may look different, an example is shown below:
– 1 = Being in the same room as a snake out of an enclosure.
– 2 = Being in the same room as a snake in an enclosure.
– 3 = Visiting a snake’s natural habitat, such as a forest.
– 4 = Watching a video of a snake.
– 5 = Seeing a lizard crawling on a wall.
– 6 = Seeing a lizard in an enclosure.
Once you have created your fear ladder, you can then confront your fears one at a time, starting at the bottom of the ladder (the trigger that results in the least phobic response). This can help you to build up your tolerance of your triggers gradually and reduce your fear of reptiles long term.
- Attend a support group
Attending a support group with other people who have had similar experiences to you can be extremely beneficial. It can help to validate your thoughts and feelings and allow you to receive advice, reassurance and empathy from other people who understand your experience. You could attend an in-person or online support group with other people with phobias or anxiety disorders.
- Practise mindfulness
Mindfulness can be beneficial in treating a variety of anxiety disorders, including phobias. It can help you to focus your breathing and attention and reduce the likelihood of you experiencing a panic attack. Mindfulness can also help to reduce the symptoms of herpetophobia. It can help you to manage stress and anxiety and be more in control of the connection between your mind and body.
- Practise yoga and meditation
Practising yoga and meditation regularly can help a person achieve a meditative state of mind and manage the symptoms of herpetophobia. Meditating and practising yoga allow you to achieve a highly relaxed state, which in turn reduces your stress levels and reduces your risk of experiencing a fight-or-flight response. Additionally, you can learn how to control your breathing and manage your body’s negative reactions to your triggers. With daily practice, you can reduce your phobia’s impact and improve your symptoms over time.
- Learn deep breathing exercises
You can successfully manage or prevent phobia symptoms by engaging in deep breathing exercises when you encounter a trigger. When you breathe deeply, your brain relaxes and calms down, which can help you to manage your anxiety. Daily deep breathing exercises can effectively reduce your stress levels, relieve tension in your body, and reduce your anxiety in the long run.
- Make lifestyle changes
Certain lifestyle factors can worsen the symptoms of your phobia and increase your anxiety. By making changes to your lifestyle, you can reduce your anxiety and the impact your phobia has on your life. Some of the lifestyle changes you could make are:
– Implement a successful sleep routine.
– Reduce your daily stress.
– Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
– Implement an exercise routine.
– Avoid caffeine, sugar and other stimulants.
– Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
– Stop smoking.
What triggers herpetophobia?
A trigger, also known as a stressor, is an object, person, place, situation or thought that triggers a negative reaction and negative thoughts and feelings, such as fear, panic, anxiety or distress. A trigger can also lead to physiological, behavioural and other psychological symptoms. Your brain perceives a trigger as a threat to your physical or mental safety or well-being and will react accordingly.
Because herpetophobia is an individualised phobia that can manifest differently in different people, there are many potential triggers. Different people have different triggers and some people with herpetophobia only have one or two triggers whereas other people have multiple triggers.
The types of triggers and the number of triggers experienced by different people can vary depending on what initially caused their phobia to develop, their perception of the potential risk, the severity of their symptoms and their current mindset and mental health.
The most common triggers for herpetophobia are:
- A reptile being close to you.
- Seeing a reptile from a distance.
- Touching a reptile.
- Hearing a hissing sound or another sound you associate with reptiles.
- Seeing movement in the grass or in the water that could be a reptile.
- Going to a zoo, pet shop or another place where reptiles are frequently found.
- Going to a wood, forest, jungle or other location which is considered to be a reptile’s natural habitat.
- Seeing something that looks like a reptile or reminds you of a reptile, e.g. a piece of rope or misshapen wood.
- Visiting a country where reptiles are more prevalent.
- Visiting someone’s home who has a pet reptile.
- Watching a video or seeing a picture of reptiles.
- Hearing a frightening or negative story about reptiles.
- Thinking about reptiles or remembering a previous encounter with reptiles.
- Seeing a toy or ornament reptile.
What are the symptoms of herpetophobia?
The symptoms of herpetophobia 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 well-being and any treatments they are undergoing or coping strategies they have implemented.
Some people with herpetophobia experience more severe symptoms than others. It could also be that your symptoms are more severe at different times and in different situations; for example, you may experience more severe symptoms if a snake slithers close to you compared to if you see one in a cage. If someone with herpetophobia encounters a reptile, their fear often causes them to overestimate the reptile’s size, weight, speed and threat.
This can make the reptile seem scarier and more dangerous than it is in reality, which can cause the symptoms of their phobia to become more severe.
The symptoms of herpetophobia can occur at any time, including when you encounter a reptile, if you think about or talk about reptiles, or if you anticipate seeing a reptile. The symptoms of phobias are often automatic and uncontrollable. It may feel like you are unable to control or manage your thoughts or feelings and that your phobia is taking over your body. To be classified as herpetophobia, you will need to experience symptoms for a minimum of six months.
The symptoms of herpetophobia can be physiological, psychological and behavioural.
The most common symptoms of herpetophobia are:
The psychological symptoms of herpetophobia are the cognitive and emotional symptoms you experience as a result of your phobia.
The most common psychological symptoms of herpetophobia are:
- Intense, overwhelming persistent, excessive and unreasonable fear, anxiety, panic or distress when faced with reptiles or another trigger.
- Feelings of fear, anxiety or panic that are out of proportion to the risks.
- Being unable to control your fear, anxiety or panic even if you are aware that they are out of proportion to the risk.
- Being unable to concentrate or function normally when close to reptiles.
- Feeling immobilised or frozen by your fear.
- Feeling defenceless or vulnerable.
- Feeling like you are losing control if you see a reptile.
- Catastrophising the potential risks of reptiles, for example, if you see a snake, it will bite you and you’ll die.
- Experiencing anticipatory anxiety in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Experiencing depersonalisation or derealisation when in a triggering situation (where you feel like you no longer understand what is happening around you or you have lost touch with reality).
- Experiencing frequent or distressing nightmares about reptiles.
- Feeling like you are in danger or having a sense of impending doom.
- Feeling like you are going to die if you see a reptile.
The behavioural symptoms are the changes in your behaviour that occur as a result of your fear of reptiles. These behaviours are usually negative, damaging or abnormal for you or for society as a whole.
The most common behavioural symptoms of herpetophobia are:
- Refusing to be close to a reptile.
- Avoiding any place or situation where you could encounter reptiles.
- Avoiding outdoor activities where you could encounter a reptile.
- Refusing to watch a TV show or film that features reptiles.
- Refusing to talk about or think about reptiles.
- Being unable to eat or having a lack of appetite during or in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Having difficulties sleeping or insomnia in the lead-up to triggering situations.
- Feeling like you want to run away or hide if you see a reptile.
- Being unable to travel to other countries, particularly those where reptiles are more prevalent.
The physiological symptoms are the physical disturbances or changes you feel in your body that are caused by your phobia. If you have herpetophobia, being exposed to a reptile or another trigger will likely create a fear or anxiety response.
This can result in a fight-or-flight response, which is an automatic physiological reaction that occurs when your brain perceives the object of your fear as a threat or danger. This can result in a sudden release of hormones, such as adrenaline or noradrenaline, that activates your sympathetic nervous system and prepares your body to fight or flee from the perceived danger.
These hormones can cause physiological symptoms such as:
- Unusual or excessive sweating or clamminess.
- Uncontrollable trembling or shaking.
- Feeling lightheaded, dizzy or faint.
- Feeling confused or disorientated.
- Chest pains or tightness in the chest.
- Shortness of breath, hyperventilating or feeling like you can’t catch your breath.
- Rapid breathing, hyperventilating or difficulty breathing.
- Heart palpitations, increased heart rate or feeling like your heart is pounding.
- Increased blood pressure.
- A choking sensation, finding it difficult to swallow or feeling like something is stuck in your throat.
- Hot flashes or chills.
- Nausea, vomiting or stomach discomfort.
- Feeling like you have butterflies in your stomach.
- Unusual or unexplainable headaches or bodily pains.
- Pins and needles, particularly in your hands, feet, arms or legs.
- Feeling unusually tired or fatigued.
- Having a dry or sticky mouth.
- Having muscle tension or stiff muscles.
- Being unusually sensitive to hot and cold temperatures (e.g. feeling like you are extremely hot even though the room temperature is normal).
- Pale or flushed skin, particularly in the face.
- Experiencing a panic attack.
Some people with herpetophobia only experience some of the symptoms from the list above. For example, some people experience fear and anxiety but few or no physiological symptoms. Other people experience a range of symptoms that are psychological, behavioural and physiological.
Symptoms of herpetophobia in children:
Although children can experience many of the same symptoms as adults, in younger children particularly, the symptoms of herpetophobia can manifest differently. This could be because children are less able to manage intense emotions, such as fear and anxiety. They may also be less able to rationalise and understand the way they are thinking and feeling and may be less constrained or less likely to hide the way they are feeling.
Some of the most common symptoms of herpetophobia in children are:
- Crying, screaming or having a tantrum.
- Lashing out by hitting or kicking people or objects that are close to them.
- Trying to run away or hide.
- Clinging to a parent, guardian or another safe person.
- Showing signs of extreme anxiety, fear or panic.
What causes herpetophobia?
There are many possible causes of herpetophobia. It could be that your phobia has one clear cause that you can easily identify or that multiple factors contributed to you developing a phobia of reptiles. Some people with herpetophobia find it difficult to identify exactly what caused them to develop a fear of reptiles, particularly if their phobia developed a long time ago, such as during childhood, or if their symptoms manifested gradually over time.
Identifying the root cause or causes of your phobia can be extremely beneficial, as it allows you to address your initial triggers and any negative patterns of thought or feelings that are attached to your initial triggers. This can make it easier to manage your symptoms and reduce the impact your phobia has on your life.
The causes of herpetophobia can be psychological, environmental, societal or genetic. The cause of a phobia of reptiles usually varies from person to person.
The most common causes of herpetophobia are:
- A negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience involving reptiles
Also known as traumatic conditioning or a direct learning experience, a traumatic experience is the most common cause of herpetophobia. The traumatic experience may or may not have involved real danger or risk. However, as long as you experienced significant fear, distress or trauma, this could have led to the development of a phobia. A traumatic experience is more likely to lead to a phobia if it happened during childhood or during a particularly vulnerable time in your life. The experience can be direct, meaning it happened to you, or indirect, meaning you witnessed the event happening to someone else. Examples of traumatic experiences are:
– Being bitten or chased by a reptile.
– Feeling trapped in a room or a small space with a reptile.
– Seeing a crocodile or alligator while swimming.
Following the traumatic experience, you may begin to have intrusive and negative thoughts or memories of the trauma and begin to avoid trauma-related triggers. This can cause the fear or anxiety you felt at the time of the experience to linger or worsen and can lead to you developing a phobia. Even if the traumatic experience involved a certain type of reptile, such as a snake, you may develop a phobia of all reptiles.
- A negative, traumatic, scary or painful experience involving another animal
A traumatic experience involving another animal can result in you developing a fear of all animals, or of animals that remind you of the original stressor. For example, a negative experience with fish can cause you to be afraid of all scaly animals or all animals that swim. This is more likely if the original event involved significant stress, trauma or pain.
- Fear rumination
This is a common cause of phobias and usually occurs following a negative experience involving reptiles. Fear rumination involves engaging in repetitive negative thought processes and persistently and repeatedly recapping a traumatic, scary, negative or painful experience. Over time, these thoughts and memories can become increasingly upsetting and intrusive and can make you remember the event as being more negative or scary than it was in reality. Fear rumination reinforces your natural fear responses, creates additional anxiety and can result in you developing a phobia of reptiles.
- The startle response
Herpetophobia can be triggered by the startle response in your brain. The startle response is a mainly unconscious defensive response to something that we perceive to be dangerous or threatening. The threatening stimulus is usually a surprise or occurs suddenly. The stimulus ‘startles’ you and causes your brain to release chemicals that heighten your feelings of anxiety and your perception of danger. If you were previously startled by a reptile, such as a snake, lizard or crocodile, this could have created a future negative association between reptiles and danger which could develop into herpetophobia.
- An informational learning experience
An informational learning experience occurs when you are exposed to information that frightens you or creates feelings of fear or anxiety. For example, learning about the number of people who die from snake bites or crocodile bites every year or the different bacteria and illnesses carried by reptiles can lead you to think of reptiles as scary or dangerous and cause you to experience feelings of fear, anxiety or panic when you see a reptile. If these feelings are not addressed and dealt with, they can then develop into a phobia.
- A learned phobia
Also known as modelling or an observational learning experience, a learned phobia usually occurs when you observe a fear of reptiles in another person and learn to be scared of them yourself. You are more likely to learn a phobia if you are exposed to it during childhood or adolescence; for example, children who grow up with a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, with herpetophobia are more likely to develop the condition themselves. However, a learned phobia can also develop during adulthood.
- Negative depictions of reptiles
There are many examples in popular culture, such as TV shows and films, where reptiles are depicted negatively. This includes scenes where the characters were attacked or killed by snakes or crocodiles. Exposure to negative portrayals such as these can result in a phobia, particularly if the exposure occurs during childhood or during a vulnerable or stressful time in your life. Negative depictions can cause you to view reptiles as dangerous or scary and you could begin to experience fear and anxiety responses at the thought of encountering reptiles. This could then develop into herpetophobia.
- Cultural beliefs or superstitions
In some cultures or religions, reptiles such as snakes have negative connotations or may be viewed negatively. For example, in Christianity, snakes are used to represent Satan or the Devil, temptation and evil, by tempting Eve in the Garden of Eden. Being taught these beliefs or being immersed in a culture that views snakes or other reptiles negatively, particularly from a young age, can cause you to view snakes negatively and even develop a fear of them.
- Experiencing significant or higher than usual stress levels
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, such as herpetophobia, particularly if you have a negative experience involving reptiles or are exposed to the fear of reptiles while experiencing higher levels of stress. A stressful or distressing event, such as a death, can also trigger a phobia, as you may be less able to manage your emotions and thought processes when experiencing grief, which can result in a disproportionate fear response.
How is herpetophobia diagnosed?
If you think you may be experiencing herpetophobia, you should visit your GP or primary healthcare physician, particularly if your fear of reptiles is disrupting or impacting your life. Your doctor can help to determine if you are experiencing normal levels of fear or whether your symptoms are severe enough to meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.
Your GP will ask questions about your symptoms and will likely look at your medical history. They may also ask about any medications or supplements you are taking, to ensure your symptoms cannot be explained by anything else. If your GP thinks you could be experiencing herpetophobia, they will then refer you to a psychologist or another mental health professional.
To gain more information about your symptoms and your thoughts and feelings surrounding reptiles, the psychologist will conduct a phobia questionnaire.
As part of the questionnaire, they will likely ask questions relating to:
- The types of symptoms you experience, how frequently they occur and how severe they are.
- The initial onset of your phobia, including when your symptoms first began and what initially triggered your fear.
- Your medical history, including whether you are currently or have previously had any anxiety disorders, panic disorders, phobias or other mental health conditions.
- Whether you have a family history of phobias.
- How much your fear interferes with your day-to-day life, your well-being and your behaviour.
Because herpetophobia is a type of specific phobia, your symptoms will need to correspond with the seven key criteria listed in the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias, as listed below:
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when the individual is close to a reptile or when they are not.
2. Exposure to reptiles or another trigger 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 they could be exposed to reptiles. If they are exposed to a reptile, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of encountering a reptile and the avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding reptiles 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 these criteria, you will be diagnosed with a specific phobia, specifically herpetophobia. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may then be offered treatment.
How is herpetophobia treated?
Several effective treatments are available for herpetophobia. It is important to note, however, that not everyone with a phobia requires treatment. You may not need formal treatment if your symptoms are mild, your fear of reptiles doesn’t affect your daily life or well-being, or if you’ve already implemented successful coping strategies. Before making any treatment decisions, you should always consult your doctor.
People with phobias, however, often find medical intervention to be effective. There is an estimated 90% success rate in treating specific phobias. When your phobia is frequently triggered, when your behaviour is changed in order to avoid reptiles, when your symptoms are severe, or if your phobia negatively impacts your life, then treatment is likely to be recommended.
As multiple treatment options are available, your psychologist will create a personalised treatment plan that is designed to specifically treat your phobia.
Your treatment plan will be based on several factors, such as:
- The severity of your symptoms.
- The frequency of your symptoms.
- The root cause of your phobia.
- How significantly your phobia impacts your life.
The most common treatment options for herpetophobia are:
Exposure therapy is one of the most effective ways of treating herpetophobia. Also known as gradual exposure or gradual desensitisation, exposure therapy involves gradual and repetitive exposure to reptiles in a safe and controlled environment.
Exposure will happen gradually over multiple sessions, with the number of sessions required depending on the severity of your phobia. The sessions involve visualising and talking about your fear and experiencing your triggers in real life.
Exposure will happen in escalating phases, starting with the trigger that is the least anxiety-provoking, such as watching a video of a reptile. Once you are comfortable with this level of exposure, you will move on to the next exposure, such as being in the same room as an enclosed reptile. With each exposure, you should experience progressively lower anxiety with the aim that you can eventually be around reptiles without experiencing a negative response.
Exposure therapy can help you overcome your phobia by developing realistic thoughts and beliefs surrounding reptiles, unlearning negative associations and patterns of thought, decreasing negative reactions and feelings towards reptiles, and learning relaxation techniques, coping strategies and calming strategies.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT):
CBT is designed to help you identify and reshape your fear of reptiles and any negative beliefs, patterns of thought, feelings and behaviours that are attached to it. During the sessions, you will explore the initial cause of your phobia and identify any damaging thoughts and feelings that are connected to the initial cause.
Many people with herpetophobia believe that reptiles are dangerous or scary. These beliefs lead to automatic negative thoughts and related behavioural reactions. CBT works to gradually change the way you think. Because your thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behaviours are all interconnected, changing the way you think will help all aspects of your phobia.
CBT takes place over multiple sessions, depending on the severity of your phobia. Sessions may be conducted individually or as part of a group.
During the sessions, you will work on:
- Understanding your triggers and what initially caused your fear of reptiles.
- Recognising distorted patterns of thinking.
- Changing any unhealthy beliefs surrounding reptiles.
- Learning coping strategies and calming strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, distraction techniques and coping statements.
Clinical hypnotherapy uses a combination of guided relaxation techniques and focused attention to help change your beliefs, thought processes and overall perception of and response to reptiles. It can change the way you think and feel about reptiles and how you respond to reptile exposure. The aim is to change your thought process and overall perception of reptiles.
Hypnotherapy can also help you to identify the underlying cause of your fear of reptiles. Additionally, you can focus on any unprocessed trauma or the initial cause of your phobia, as well as any negative memories you have surrounding reptiles. In addition, you’ll learn how to overcome any negative feelings about reptiles, both long-term and short-term. Additionally, you will learn calming techniques to help you manage your phobia more effectively.
Medication is not usually offered as the sole treatment option for herpetophobia. However, if you experience another mental health difficulty, such as depression or anxiety alongside your phobia, medication may be recommended. In this situation, you will likely be offered medication alongside a type of psychotherapy, such as CBT or exposure therapy.
Some types of medication which are often used to treat phobias and associated mental health conditions are: