Fear of Spiders, Facing Arachnophobia
Photo by Credit: Eka Melev/Unsplash

There you are sitting on a comfy couch with a cup of tea and a good book. Suddenly, a blood-curdling scream comes from the back of your house from a beloved family member.  Heart and feet racing, you enter a room occupied by your child or spouse whose face is frozen in open-mouthed catalepsy. They are rendered speechless by fear with only a trembling finger pointing toward the impetus. Spider!!!!! Despite the fact that your spouse or child outweighs the eight-legged menace by about 100,000 times and could easily squish it into two-dimensional thinness with the bottom of a shoe, it is the tiny creature that holds the upper hand.

Arachnophobia is present in many western cultures.  It is one of the most common animal phobias along with snakes and bats.  However, human encounters with these latter two beasties are rare and may never happen in a lifetime. Whereas, encounters with spiders is a certainty considering their ubiquity.

What Arachnophobes Dislike About Spiders

Interestingly, it isn’t the threat to personal health that arachnophobes dislike about spiders.  It is the physical and behavioral aspects of spiders that evoke the negative feelings.  Spiders are too hairy. They have too many legs or too many eyes.  Spiders are silent and show up unexpectedly.  They move too fast.  They are nocturnal and run around while we sleep instead of during the day when nice creatures are active.  It is their “spideriness” that arachnophobes do not like.  But some arachnophobes take it a step further and ascribe malevolent personality attributes to the spider far beyond its tiny-brained capability.  They see the spider as mischievous, nefarious and purposely plotting endangerments or revenge against the human for killing its relatives.

Negative attitudes toward spiders vary from mild dislike to extreme phobia.  In cases of extreme reaction, people will expend significant time and energy trying to avoid contact with spiders.  They will tape over the space between the door jamb and bottom of the door.   People will walk very gingerly from their car to their home in the dreaded event that a spider might walk over their shoe. They can’t stomach looking at pictures of spiders in books or even hearing the word “spider”.  In extreme  cases, severe reaction may interfere with a person’s ability to maintain a job or go on social outings.  A picnic out in the open in the park or a hike in the mountains?  You gotta be kidding.

Characteristics About Arachnophobes

Arachnophobia often starts somewhere around 4 to 10 years of age. This is when other phobias are primed to initiate.  Females are much more likely to be arachnophobes than males. There may be a family component too. If you see a parent over-reacting to the presence of a spider, a child may likewise consider this to be the proper response.  This family component is strongest between mother and daughter.  There may be an incident that kicks off the arachnophobia. This could be turning on a light switch in a darkened room only to see a big hairy spider just an inch away from one’s hand. As if the spider was waiting there for them.

Other arachnophobes cite an incident where a parent or older sibling chased them around the house with a large, live spider in a jar or a squashed spider in a tissue.  On the other hand, many arachnophobes state that “they have always been afraid of spiders” and can’t pin down an exact negative incident that started the whole process.  In addition, some people develop unwarranted arachnophobia after a physician makes a diagnosis of spider bite in a patient with a serious skin injury. Unfortunately, this happens all too often when the diagnosis occurs in regions of North American where the spider scapegoat has never been found in that U.S. state or Canadian province.  This is most common with the brown recluse spider and can lead to debilitating arachnophobia.

Arachnophobic Entomologists

An interesting and amusing study published in the American Entomologist in 2013 recorded the responses of 41 entomologists who had minor to major negative reactions to spiders, several in the arachnophobic range.  It seems quite paradoxical that given the tremendous variation in body forms that insects display (butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches, fleas, etc.) that entomologists would not assimilate the spider’s morphology into that of the general insect form.  Nonetheless, these people work with insects for a good portion of their lives and yet their reactions to spiders are different than to insects, and some quite comical.

One entomologist was curator of a museum. She had no trouble walking into the insect section of the museum. However, even though the spiders in the arachnid section were dead and preserved in alcohol, walking into the arachnid section gave her the “heebie jeebies”.  A forensic entomologist declared that she would rather scoop up a handful of fly maggots with her gloved hand than have to deal with a spider.  Another entomologist would run out of the laboratory if she saw a live spider, even if it was fully contained in a plastic bag; she grew up in brown recluse territory and, as a child, her parents inculcated her with dire warnings to avoid spiders.

Personal Story

A senior entomologist relayed a story that he was so unnerved by spiders that he carried a roll of paper towels next to him in his van when he drove around.  If a spider appeared on the inside of the windshield, he would grab a paper towel and squish it.  One time this happened and by the time he grabbed the towel, the spider was nowhere to be seen.  However, the spider did eventually reappear.  Unfortunately, it re-appeared by running over his face, launching itself up into his nostril.  He said he snorted as hard as he could and was able to pull the van over to the side of the road without crashing.

All of these scientists developed arachnophobia as children, well before they made their career choice and despite familiarity and exposure to insects, their phobia persisted.

Psychological Theories Regarding Fear of Spiders

There are several theories as to why some humans develop arachnophobia to such an extent that it becomes a significant incorporation of their day.  One theory is that there might be an innate, genetic hard-wiring left over from our caveman days to fear spiders.  Because some spiders are potentially dangerous, it is better to assume any spider might be dangerous than to assume they are harmless.  The same rationale can be applied for snake phobia.  This is the Preparedness Theory where it is better to be safe than sorry.

A second possible explanation is the Disgust Avoidance Theory where again, there is a hard-wired neurological ancestral response where things that were consider gross or disgusting (feces, slime, filth, vomit) could be dangerous to our continued survival so therefore these things should be avoided.  Because some arthropods are disease carriers and vectors of medical maladies, spiders may be lumped into the “disgust” category even though there are no known diseases that they transfer to humans.

Arachnophobia Can Be Dangerous To Your Survival

Besides the previously mentioned social and psychological detriments that can manifest in arachnophobia, there are actually life-threatening scenarios as well.  News reports occasionally mention people using flame to kill spiders, inadvertently setting their homes on fire.  Additional reports document people who have crashed their cars because, while driving, a spider dropped down from the ceiling or rear-view mirror. The driver freaked out, losing control of the vehicle.

How Arachnophobes Reduce Arachnophobia

So what do you do if you are arachnophobic and want to try to reduce or eliminate this potentially debilitating affliction from your life?  One of the remedies that work for some people is to expose oneself to spiders in a controlled environment.  In psychological behavioral desensitization, a patient may go through episodes where they sit in a room with a large spider (usually a harmless tarantula) safely contained in an aquarium.  In incremental movements possibly over a series of weeks, the arachnophobe decreases the distance between the aquarium and where they are sitting.  The eventual goal is to get the arachnophobe to handle the spider; although, this is often too much for some people.

Others have reversed their arachnophobia by just observing spiders. They realize that the spiders didn’t actually have a plan to attack humans.  In a study of members of the American Tarantula Society who were once fearful of spiders, 70 percent reduced their fear of spiders through education. Meanwhile, 40 percent reduced their fear through additional exposure and 27 percent from additional physical contact. Just reading about spiders was sufficient to allay fears and for some. They could mentally embrace spiders for their amazing abilities like orb web building.

For those phobics who want to start out slowly, they often consider viewing jumping spiders which many people find to be the most inoffensive spiders with their bright colors, keen eyesight, squat tank-like bodies and jaunty movements; actually many people feel that jumping spiders are downright fuzzy cute as they move like little cats and will track your finger if you wave it in front of them.

Positive Aspects of Spiders

Finally, it might help arachnophobes to realize the positive aspects that spiders provide for humanity.  While humans are completely oblivious to their contributions, on a daily and nightly basis, spiders are diligently acting as efficient predators removing disease-carrying flies and mosquitoes from the environment.  Scientists are investigating spider silk for its amazing ability to stretch without breaking while absorbing energy; this may lead to improvement in bullet-proof vests and development of lighter weight parachutes.

Spider venom contains an amazing cocktail of compounds that researchers are finding useful.  Because spider venom affects nerve cells, some are being used to discover greater understanding of several human neurological diseases.  And because spider venom predominantly targets insects and has little effect on other animals, this may lead its way to development of insecticides with great specificity that have no detrimental effect on non-target organisms and are completely safe for humans.

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