What Is Fear of Spiders (Arachnophobia)?

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Arachnophobia is the extreme fear of spiders and other arachnids (such as scorpions, mites, and ticks).

While lots of people dislike spiders or feel uncomfortable around them, arachnophobia is more intense. Classified under specific phobias, arachnophobia causes severe distress and can affect your quality of life.

This article will discuss the causes, diagnostic procedures, treatment options, and ways to cope if you have arachnophobia.

A woman covering her mouth with her hand

Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman / Getty Images

Definition of Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia is sometimes called spider phobia. It falls under the heading of animal phobias, which is a type of specific phobia.

A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that's not likely to be harmful or dangerous. Usually, adults with phobias understand that their fear is irrational, but they feel the intense fear anyway.

With a specific phobia, you may experience anxiety symptoms of a phobia even if you're not around the object of your fear. Thinking about the feared object, anticipating encountering it, or seeing a representation of it, such as a photo or video, can cause severe anxiety symptoms.

Approximately 12.5% of American adults experience a specific phobia at some point in their lives.

Arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias.

The object of fear in arachnophobia is spiders and/or other arachnids such as scorpions, mites, or ticks.

Characteristics

People with arachnophobia have a distorted view of the threat spiders pose. They overestimate:

  • The likelihood of having an adverse encounter with a spider
  • The likelihood of encountering a spider at all
  • Characteristics of spiders, such as seeing spiders as bigger than they actually are

Exactly what it is about spiders that frighten people with this phobia can vary, but how spiders move and how they look are frequently cited.

An encounter with a spider can cause people with arachnophobia to experience symptoms similar to a panic attack, such as:

  • Fast heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Feelings of losing control
  • Feeling like you're choking
  • Difficulty distinguishing what's real
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Thoughts of death
  • Nausea or other gastrointestinal trouble
  • A sensation of butterflies in the stomach
  • Headaches
  • Numbness or a pins and needles feeling
  • Dry mouth
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Confusion or disorientation

People with arachnophobia avoid situations in which they may encounter a spider, such as going into a garage, gardening, or camping in the woods.

Diagnosis

Based on the official criteria outlines in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), people with a specific phobia:

  • Experience excessive and persistent fear of a specific object or situation
  • Experience feelings of anxiety, fear, or panic immediately upon encountering the feared object or situation
  • Have a fear that's out of proportion to the actual risk posed by the object or situation
  • Avoid the feared object or situation, or experience intense anxiety or discomfort during encounters with the feared object or situation
  • Have fear, anxiety, or avoidance that causes significant distress (it bothers them that they have the fear) or significant interference in their day-to-day life, such as difficulty performing important tasks at work, meeting new friends, attending classes, or interacting with others
  • Have persistent fear, anxiety, or avoidance (usually lasting at least six months)
  • Experience fear, panic, and avoidance that's not better explained by another disorder

Typically, people who have a phobia are aware that they have a phobia. The first step to confirming this and beginning treatment is seeing a healthcare provider, usually a primary care physician. From there, referrals may be made to a mental health professional.

Is There a Test for Arachnophobia?

There are also two self-reported questionnaires:

  • Fear of Spiders Questionnaire (FSQ)
  • Spider Phobia Questionnaire (SPQ)

One study suggests the FSQ has benefits over the SPQ.

Causes

Most specific phobias start in childhood, usually between the ages of 7 and 11.

Yet, specific phobias can begin at any time, and even when they start in childhood they can last well into adulthood.

An exact cause of a person's arachnophobia isn't always known. For some, it can be a result of a negative childhood experience with spiders, but it's not always so obvious.

Can Fear of Spiders Be Evolutionary?

It's possible that the fear of spiders may be an evolutionary trait. One study found that 6-month-old infants showed a stress response to pictures of spiders. The researchers theorized that this was because spiders may have posed a significant threat to our evolutionary ancestors.

Spider phobia may also be a learned response. A person may learn to fear spiders by:

  • Directly experiencing a negative interaction with a spider
  • Growing up with parents or other influential figures who were scared of spiders
  • Seeing or hearing in the media, such as in movies and on TV, that spiders are dangerous and to be avoided

Treatment

If arachnophobia is causing significant disruption in your life, treatment may be necessary.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT techniques are currently considered to be the most promising evidence-based treatments for specific phobias.

CBT focuses on identifying faulty or unhealthy thinking patterns and changing them into productive ones.

Exposure Therapy

Sometimes called desensitization, exposure therapy is a CBT technique. It works by gradually exposing the person to their object of fear. The therapist may start by talking to you about spiders, then they'll have you look at pictures, then videos, and work up to having you hold a real spider.

There are several options for the administration of exposure therapy:

  • Traditional: Traditionally, CBT for phobias involves eight to 12 weekly one-hour sessions.
  • Accelerated CBT: Accelerated CBT consists of five daily sessions over the span of a week, each lasting 1.5 to two hours.
  • One-session treatment (OST): OST is an intense, three-hour, onetime treatment. The exposures are prolonged (lasting a long time) and massed (close together in time), without a chance for avoidance. OST is combined with CBT exercises and guidance from the therapist. This one-session version may be similarly effective as a longer treatment plan. One of the big advantages of this approach is that it is quick and convenient, not requiring a lot of scheduling or a long commitment.
  • Virtual reality (VR): There is growing evidence in support of using virtual reality as a therapy for arachnophobia. With virtual reality, you're immersed in a completely digital and artificial environment meant to simulate real life. VR may help overcome the reluctance of many people with arachnophobia to seek treatment that involves in-person exposure. In one small study, 83% of people who underwent VR treatment for spider phobia showed clinically significant improvement.
  • Augmented reality (AR): AR is similar to VR, but it combines a digital object with a real-life background. For example, a person could look through a device and see a digital spider on their real-life kitchen table. As with VR, AR may be helpful for people who avoid treatment involving a live spider. Another advantage of AR (and VR) is that it can be customized. For example, if a person fears specific spider movements, the virtual spider can be programmed to repeat this movement.

There's an App for That

A study of one AR app called Phobys designed to treat arachnophobia found that people who used the app showed significantly less fear and disgust when they were exposed to a real spider (in a transparent box) and were able to get closer to the spider than the control group.

The app uses a smartphone to place a realistic-looking digital spider into the background of whatever is captured on the phone's screen, such as the person's hand.

Internet‐Based Self‐Help

A small study suggests Internet-based programs may be a viable alternative to in-person treatment.

The treatment studied involved five weekly text modules presented on a web page and a video in which exposure was modeled.

Are There Medications That Help Arachnophobia?

Medications aren't typically prescribed for specific phobias on their own. Medications may be prescribed for situational use (such as a person who has a phobia of flying who has to take an airplane), but in the long term, they're not as helpful as behavioral treatments such as exposure therapy.

Coping

In addition to formal treatment, there are some measures you can take on your own to help with your spider phobia, including:

  • Learn about spiders: Knowledge is power. It might be reassuring to know that the majority of spiders aren't harmful to humans.
  • Use relaxation techniques: Mindfulness exercises can help you manage your anxiety.
  • Use visualization: While using relaxation and breathing techniques, picture how you would handle an encounter with a spider.
  • Join a support group: Whether for arachnophobia or for specific phobias in general, talking with like-minded people can help.
  • Take care of your overall health: Eating healthy foods, getting plenty of exercise and sleep, and other important lifestyle practices can help you stay healthy overall, which helps manage anxiety.

Summary

Arachnophobia is the extreme fear of spiders and other arachnids. An encounter with a spider can cause people with arachnophobia to experience symptoms similar to a panic attack.

The first step to getting a diagnosis for arachnophobia and beginning treatment is seeing a healthcare provider, usually a primary care physician. From there, referrals may be made to a mental health professional.

Treatment for arachnophobia usually includes CBT. Exposure therapy, a type of CBT might be recommended. Medications aren't typically prescribed for specific phobias on their own.

A Word From Verywell

Living with a phobia can feel overwhelming and isolating. It's understandable if you feel uncomfortable opening up to loved ones about what you're experiencing. Joining a support group of like-minded people can help connect you with people who understand what you're going through.

Other strategies for coping include relaxation techniques, learning about spiders, and keeping a healthy lifestyle.

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