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Although accurate statistics of how many people experience ophidiophobia, or a fear of snakes, are not available, it is thought that approximately 10% of people are afraid of snakes. This equates to 6.7 million people in the UK. However, the proportion of this number who are experiencing a true phobia is unknown.
Ophidiophobia is one of the most common types of specific phobia. Today, we will look at ophidiophobia in more detail, including causes, symptoms and possible treatments.
What is ophidiophobia?
Ophidiophobia is a specific phobia characterised by an extreme and overwhelming fear of snakes. Phobias, including ophidiophobia, are a type of anxiety disorder. Although many people have a fear of snakes, to be categorised as a phobia, the fear must be extreme and interfere with your day-to-day life, your overall wellbeing or your sense of safety.
To qualify as ophidiophobia, your fear of snakes must include:
- Feelings of intense fear, panic or anxiety that are irrational and difficult to control or manage.
- The fear must be out of proportion to the potential danger.
- The fear of snakes must last longer than six months.
- The fear negatively impacts your day-to-day life.
Studies have shown that the human brain is evolutionarily conditioned to be afraid of snakes. Humans are predisposed to recognising snakes as dangerous, possibly as a survival mechanism developed by our ancestors. The evolutionary basis for ophidiophobia likely developed because certain snakes are dangerous to humans, especially those that are venomous or are large enough to squeeze a human to death.
However, in reality, only 7% of snakes are dangerous enough to kill or seriously harm a human and it is extremely unlikely that we will ever encounter these snakes in real life. Possibly because there is an evolutionary basis for a fear of snakes, ophidiophobia is one of the most common phobias across the world.
A phobia of snakes differs from a fear of snakes because with a phobia the fear is irrational and overwhelming. An individual who has ophidiophobia won’t usually just be fearful of snakes that pose a danger, they will also fear small, non-venomous snakes and snakes who are in secure cages or enclosures.
The fear of snakes may interfere with your ability to function in certain situations such as at work or school and in social situations. For example, you may avoid places or situations where you could encounter snakes, take extreme action to avoid snakes or act in an unusual way.
Some people who have ophidiophobia experience intense anxiety just by thinking about or hearing about snakes or if they see or hear something that reminds them of a snake, such as a hissing noise or a long rope.
Even if you understand that your phobia is excessive and unrealistic, you may be unable to control your fear or prevent your symptoms from occurring. Some people with ophidiophobia may also experience another phobia related to their fear of snakes.
This could include:
- Herpetophobia: A fear of reptiles.
- Ranidaphobia: A fear of frogs.
- Thanatophobia: A fear of death.
You may also develop an intense fear of objects, places or situations that are related to snakes. For example, fearing long grass or pet shops.
Ophidiophobia is a type of specific phobia. A specific phobia is a lasting, overwhelming and unreasonable fear of a specific object, situation, activity or person; in this situation, an overwhelming fear of snakes. The most common specific phobias are acrophobia (a fear of heights), agoraphobia (a fear of places or situations where you are unable to escape, e.g. enclosed areas or crowds), arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) and hemophobia (a fear of blood).
How common is ophidiophobia?
The true prevalence of ophidiophobia is unknown. This is because some people with ophidiophobia never seek a diagnosis and instead avoid places and situations where they could encounter snakes. Alternatively, they may try to manage their symptoms themselves.
It is thought that approximately 10% of the world’s population is afraid of snakes, equating to a huge 780 million people. However, determining how many of these people suffer from a phobia of snakes, rather than a fear of snakes, is difficult.
Multiple studies, including Fredrikson, Annas, Fischer and Wik (1996), have found specific gender differences in the prevalence of ophidiophobia. In fact, women are four times more likely to have a phobia of snakes compared to men.
Who is at risk of ophidiophobia?
Although anyone can develop a phobia of snakes, certain risk factors increase the likelihood of you developing ophidiophobia.
Some of the risk factors include:
- Having a close family member with ophidiophobia.
- Having a close family member with another type of phobia.
- Having another mental health condition, such as an anxiety disorder.
- If you were exposed to ophidiophobia during childhood.
- If you are naturally a more nervous or anxious person.
- If you have experienced a traumatic experience relating to snakes.
- Being younger than 20 years of age, as most phobias develop during childhood or adolescence.
- Being part of a culture or religion that portrays snakes negatively or vilifies them.
However, even if you have one or more of the above risk factors, this does not mean you will develop ophidiophobia. A person with no risk factors who has never had a negative or traumatic experience with a snake can still develop ophidiophobia. On the contrary, someone who has a parent with ophidiophobia and is typically anxious may never develop ophidiophobia.
How to deal with ophidiophobia
Because encounters with snakes in real life are usually rare, you may think the best way to manage your condition is to avoid snakes or any places or situations where you may encounter snakes. However, this may not be the most effective way to deal with your ophidiophobia long-term.
If you don’t deal with your triggers and the cause of your phobia, your symptoms may become more severe, or you may find that your symptoms are easily triggered, even if you aren’t in the presence of a snake.
Learning how to deal with the symptoms of your ophidiophobia can help reduce your phobia’s impact on your day-to-day life and improve your overall wellbeing. You can learn and implement effective coping strategies to reduce or alleviate your symptoms.
Some of the most effective coping strategies are:
- Implement visualisation techniques to focus on a memory or place that makes you feel calm or encourages a positive outcome.
- Remind yourself that your fear is irrational and that the snake poses no danger.
- Remind yourself that the feeling will pass.
- Focus on something external that will keep you calm, e.g. passing traffic or another person.
- Stay in the same place until symptoms subside.
- If the trigger is not a real snake, approach it so you can see it is not real or remind yourself that it is not real and cannot hurt you.
To help you deal with your phobia long-term, there are some strategies that you can implement that can prevent your phobia from taking over if you encounter a snake in the future.
This could include:
- Learn more about snakes, especially those native to the UK or any snakes that there is any possibility of you encountering.
- Learn about how to behave in the event you encounter snakes to keep you safe. For example, snakes are unlikely to attack humans unless they feel threatened. Knowing that a snake is unlikely to attack you can help you keep calm.
- Practise yoga, meditation or mindfulness, which can help you stay calm in triggering situations.
- Reduce stress in your everyday life, as you are more likely to feel fear and anxiety if you are stressed.
- Exercise regularly, eat a healthy more balanced diet and ensure you get enough sleep, as there is a link between all of these factors and anxiety.
- Talk to someone you trust or someone who has also experienced ophidiophobia.
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants that can exacerbate your symptoms.
What triggers ophidiophobia?
Ophidiophobia has different triggers in different places. For example, some people only experience symptoms when in the presence of a snake, whereas other people experience symptoms in many situations, even if there are no snakes present.
Some of the most common triggers that cause a person to begin experiencing symptoms of ophidiophobia are:
- Encountering a snake in real life.
- Thinking about a snake.
- Watching a film or video or seeing a picture of a snake.
- Hearing a hissing or slithering noise that reminds you of a snake.
- Going to a zoo, a pet shop or another place where snakes may be.
- Going to a wood, forest, swamp, jungle or another location that is considered a snake’s natural habitat.
- Seeing an object that looks like a snake, such as a rope or a thick cable.
What are the symptoms of ophidiophobia?
You can experience symptoms of ophidiophobia when exposed to snakes, when thinking about snakes or when exposed to a sight or sound that reminds you of snakes. You could also experience symptoms if you see a picture, video clip or film that contains a snake. The symptoms of ophidiophobia are similar to the symptoms of anxiety or a panic attack and can be both physiological and psychological.
The symptoms of ophidiophobia can vary significantly from person to person. You may also experience different symptoms in different situations, for example, you may experience different symptoms when thinking about snakes compared to when seeing one in a zoo. Some people also experience different symptoms when faced with different sizes and species of snakes.
Some of the symptoms typically associated with ophidiophobia can include:
- Difficulty breathing, fast breathing, shortness of breath or hyperventilating.
- Tightness in the chest or chest pain.
- Nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea.
- Dizziness or light-headedness.
- Increased heart rate.
- Elevated blood pressure.
- Shaking or trembling.
- A burning or prickling sensation in the hands, feet, arms or legs.
- Chills or hot flushes.
- A dry mouth.
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Raised blood pressure.
- A headache.
- A feeling of choking.
- Freezing and being unable to move.
- Extreme feelings of terror or fear.
- A fear of death or dying.
- A fear of losing control.
- Overwhelming anxiety.
- Feeling trapped or unable to escape.
- A sense of impending doom.
You may know your fear doesn’t make sense, but you cannot manage it or alleviate your symptoms.
What causes ophidiophobia?
There are several reasons why someone could develop ophidiophobia. It could be that multiple factors contribute to a person developing ophidiophobia or a person’s phobia can have one single cause.
The main causes of ophidiophobia are:
- A negative or traumatic experience with snakes
If you had a negative experience with snakes in the past, whether in childhood or adulthood, this could cause you to develop a phobia of snakes. This could include being bitten or threatened by a snake or seeing a frightening video of a snake attack.
- Learned phobia
If you have a close family member, such as a parent or sibling, or a close friend who has ophidiophobia, you are more likely to develop the same phobia. This is particularly true if you are exposed to the phobia during childhood.
- A genetic predisposition
There is thought to be a genetic component to the development of phobias, including ophidiophobia. Genetic factors can make you predisposed to developing a phobia.
- Cultural beliefs or superstitions
In some cultures or religions, snakes may have an extremely negative representation or connotations, such as an association with evil, lies and the devil. These beliefs could result in an intense fear or phobia of snakes.
- Media portrayal
Phobias can be learned as a result of the media portrayal of a particular thing. Snakes are usually portrayed negatively in the media, including in films, TV shows and books. Constant exposure to this negativity can cause someone to develop an extreme fear without having personally had a negative experience with snakes.
- Significant stress
Significant, long-term stress can result in disproportionate fear responses or an inability to manage intense situations.
- Brain chemistry
If the neurotransmitters in your brain are out of balance, this can result in anxiety or a phobia. This is particularly true for the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
It could also be that there is no clear cause or reason why a person developed ophidiophobia.
How is ophidiophobia diagnosed?
Ophidiophobia can be more difficult to diagnose than other phobias, such as claustrophobia, because it is classed as a specific phobia. This means it is a phobia of a specific object or thing, in this case, the fear of snakes. The diagnostic criteria used for diagnosing phobias do not list all the specific phobias individually, meaning your phobia may be assessed using the diagnostic criteria for specific phobias in general.
If you think you have ophidiophobia, your first step will be to visit your GP. An early diagnosis allows you to seek treatment and reduce your symptoms more effectively.
Receiving a diagnosis may be particularly beneficial if your ophidiophobia:
- Impedes your ability to function in your everyday life.
- Has a specific negative impact on your quality of life.
- Causes you to avoid certain situations or places.
- Has a negative impact on your mental health or wellbeing.
During your appointment, your GP will ask if you have a history of anxiety disorders or extreme fears. They will look at your medical history and your family history and will likely perform a physical exam. They will also look at any other conditions you are diagnosed with and any medication or supplements you take to ensure your symptoms cannot be attributed to another source.
If your GP suspects you have ophidiophobia, they will likely refer you to a psychologist who will conduct a psychological evaluation and assess your symptoms. The psychologist will need to confirm you are experiencing a phobia rather than a fear.
They will likely give you a phobia questionnaire and will ask for information about:
- Your triggers.
- The type of symptoms you experience.
- The frequency and severity of your symptoms.
- How much your phobia interferes with your everyday life.
The psychologist will also ask about any negative life events, stressors or traumatic events that could have contributed to you developing ophidiophobia.
To be diagnosed as having ophidiophobia, your symptoms must fit seven key criteria:
1. The fear must be persistent, excessive and unreasonable. It can occur either when snakes are present or when they are not present.
2. Exposure to a snake 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 snakes could be present. If a snake is present, the individual will experience extreme fear, anxiety or distress.
5. The anticipation of snakes and avoidance behaviours associated with avoiding snakes 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.
How is ophidiophobia treated?
Treatments for phobias vary depending on the severity of your symptoms and how significantly the phobia impacts your day-to-day life and your overall health and wellbeing. Some people may not require treatment for their ophidiophobia. However, if your phobia is negatively impacting your daily life, you should seek treatment.
You may require more than one type of treatment. The most commonly used treatments for ophidiophobia are:
Different types of psychotherapy can be used for the treatment of phobias.
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy that can help you to understand and change harmful, flawed or negative thought patterns. CBT is the most common, and usually most effective, treatment for phobias including ophidiophobia. It can help you to develop coping strategies in case you are faced with triggers in the future.
During your therapy sessions, you will:
- Discuss your symptoms.
- Explore your fears in more detail.
- Learn how to recognise your negative thoughts and change the way you are thinking.
- Learn coping strategies.
- Learn calming strategies.
Exposure therapy is also known as desensitisation therapy. It is where you are gradually exposed to snakes in a safe, controlled environment. The gradual and repeated exposure allows you to confront your fear and become more comfortable in triggering situations. It can also help you to overcome your fear completely.
There are several different types of exposure therapy, and your psychologist will create a treatment plan based on your specific symptoms. You may begin by looking at pictures of snakes and talking about snakes and build up to using virtual reality to experience a snake and finally seeing a snake in real life.
Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT):
This is a type of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy that helps you to identify irrational and negative thoughts and unhealthy attitudes, emotions and behaviours. REBT is an action-oriented approach that helps people challenge irrational beliefs and manage their thoughts, emotions and behaviours in a more realistic and healthy way.
Medication is not usually offered as a sole treatment for ophidiophobia. It may, however, be used in conjunction with psychotherapy in more severe cases of ophidiophobia.
The most common medications used to treat phobias are:
Antidepressants such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) can help to decrease the symptoms of phobias.
- Anti-anxiety medication
Anti-anxiety medication may help to prevent or decrease the fear responses related to phobias.
Beta-blockers can help to decrease the body’s negative responses to snakes.
Other Types of Treatment:
There are other treatment options available for ophidiophobia including:
Hypnotherapy can change the way you feel, think of and behave in response to snakes. You will be put into a relaxed, hypnotic state and then a combination of techniques will be used to re-pattern your thoughts and memories related to snakes and help you to reduce your phobic response. You may also be able to identify and reduce the emotions caused by the onset of the phobia.
- Relaxation and Visualisation
You will be taught different relaxation and visualisation techniques to help you cope if you are ever in a triggering situation. Techniques may include mental imagery, guided imagery, deep breathing techniques, autogenic training and progressive muscle relaxation. These techniques can help you remain calm when faced with snakes in the future.