Arachnophobia (Fear of Spiders)
What is arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia is an intense fear of spiders.
Many fears seems reasonable. We all try to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable. The difference between a fear and a phobia is that a phobia is an intense and irrational fear toward one or more things or situations. Also, with phobias, the level of your fear doesn’t match the actual danger presented by the feared object or situation.
Phobias become a health issue when the fear interferes with your ability to carry out daily activities. Phobias can limit your ability to work efficiently, can put a strain on your relationships and reduce your self-esteem. In this case, for example, you might purposely avoid outdoor activities (hikes, picnics, biking) or seasonal activities (Halloween) with family or friends because of your fear that spiders might be present.
What situations can trigger arachnophobia?
Common triggers include:
- Sight of a spider (in person or in pictures).
- Sight of a spider web (in person or in pictures).
- Thoughts/anticipation about spiders or spider webs.
- Speaking about spiders or spider webs.
What does arachnophobia feel like?
If you have arachnophobia:
- You feel anxious about seeing or thinking about spiders or spider webs. Your anxiety worsens as you get closer to the encounter.
- You have trouble concentrating and functioning. You’re consumed by thoughts of spiders. These thoughts keep you up at night.
How common is arachnophobia?
About 3% to 15% of the population has arachnophobia.
Who gets arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia is more common in females than males. Although anyone, at any age, can develop a specific phobia, such as arachnophobia, most develop in childhood and adolescence.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of arachnophobia?
- Sweating or shaking.
- Tightness in your chest or rapid heartbeat.
- Trouble breathing or breathing fast.
- Chills or flushing (red, hot face).
- A choking feeling.
- Upset stomach or feeling “butterflies” in your stomach.
- Dizziness, feeling faint or lightheaded.
- Dry mouth.
- Crying, tantrums, freezing or clinging (symptoms of a specific phobia in children, although adults can experience these symptoms too).
How does a person with arachnophobia typically act?
If you have arachnophobia, you may:
- Avoid places or situations in which you might experience a spider or spider web or see pictures of them.
- Choose to stay where you feel most comfortable and turn down social activities or family and friend gatherings due to your fear.
- Scream, run or cry if you see a spider.
- Freeze in place because of your fear.
What causes arachnophobia?
What causes arachnophobia isn’t fully understood. Researchers believe causes might include:
- A traumatic past experience with a spider.
- Childhood exposure to a parent’s arachnophobia. You may develop arachnophobia if you felt the anxieties of one of your parent’s reactions to spiders.
- Family history of anxiety disorders. This could increase your chance of developing a phobia, such as arachnophobia.
Technically, scientists believe neurochemicals overstimulate an area of your brain — your amygdala — in the presence of fear. There’s also thought that a single genetic mutation can increase your risk of arachnophobia if you have that gene defect.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is arachnophobia diagnosed?
If you have arachnophobia, you know you have a fear of spiders and you know it’s a problem because you take great caution in avoiding situations in which you might encounter a spider.
Your healthcare provider will want to confirm that your fear is a phobia versus a normal level of fear and that it’s not the result of a medical condition or psychiatric disorder. Phobias significantly interfere with your ability to live a normal life. Your provider may give you a questionnaire to fill out or ask you directly how your arachnophobia has affected your daily life, how intense your fear feels and how often you feel it. They may also ask how you cope.
Your provider will make the diagnosis of arachnophobia if you have all of the following:
- Your fear of spiders is intense and has been present six months or longer.
- Your fear or anxiety is about a specific situation or object — in this case, spiders.
- Your fear and anxiety almost always happen as soon as you encounter a spider or think about spiders.
- You avoid places you think there are spiders or endure it with intense fear or anxiety.
- Your fear is out of proportion to the actual danger.
- Your fear causes you significant distress or significantly hampers your ability to function.
Management and Treatment
How is arachnophobia treated?
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy are the two main treatments for arachnophobia.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of psychotherapy (talk therapy) focuses on managing your phobia by changing the way you think, feel and behave.
During CBT, you’ll:
- Discuss your symptoms and describe how you feel.
- Explore your phobia more deeply to gain insight into how to respond.
- Learn how to recognize, reevaluate and change your thinking.
- Use problem-solving skills to learn how to cope.
- Face your phobia instead of avoiding it.
- Learn how to keep your mind and body calm.
Exposure therapy (also called desensitization therapy): In this type of psychotherapy, you are gradually exposed to your feared situation. With gradual, repeated exposure, the goal is that you will feel comfortable when faced with your feared situation and, in this case, to recognize that spiders are not dangerous (unless you live in parts of the country known for dangerous spiders).
Exposure therapy may involve:
- Recalling and describing your feared experience.
- Looking at pictures or using virtual reality to get close to the real feared experience yet be in a safe environment.
- Facing your feared phobia directly, in real life.
Exposure therapy can be paced in in several ways. Therapy also includes relaxation and breathing exercises. Your psychologist will develop a unique plan for you, based on the severity of your symptoms.
CBT and exposure therapy are often used together in a single treatment plan. CBT helps you gain insight into your fears, then exposure therapy helps desensitize your body’s “fight or flight” response to spiders.
Are medications used to treat arachnophobia?
Medications don’t treat arachnophobia, but are sometimes prescribed, for a short period of time, to treat the anxiety caused by your fear of spiders. Medications, if used, are usually part of total psychotherapy treatment plan. If your healthcare provider thinks you need medication, the drug classes most often prescribed are:
- Benzodiazepines, such as the antianxiety drugs alprazolam (Xanax®), clonazepam (Klonopin®) and diazepam (Valium®).
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, such as the antidepressants paroxetine (Paxil®) or escitalopram (Lexapro®).
- Other medication options may include sedatives, tranquilizers and beta blockers.
What can I do to better cope with arachnophobia?
In addition to seeing your primary healthcare provider or psychologist, you can try any of the following that make you feel comfortable:
- Learn strategies to relax: Try deep breathing exercises (breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, hold for three seconds, breathe out slowly through your mouth), mediation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing muscle groups) and other methods to relax. Visualize and focus your attention on something that makes you calm.
- Take care of yourself: Eat a well-balanced diet, follow good sleep habits and exercise for 30 minutes at least five days a week. Healthy lifestyle choices can decrease your anxiety.
- Join a support join for individuals with phobias: Support groups can be very useful for knowing you are not alone and for sharing tips and advice.
Outlook / Prognosis
What can I expect if I have a diagnosis of arachnophobia?
Without treatment, a phobia can last a lifetime and can isolate you from people and social activities.
Fortunately, phobias are very treatable. Psychotherapy — exposure therapy in particular — helps as many as 90% of people who are committed to practicing the therapy they learned. You may notice improvements within weeks to a few months.
How do I know at what point I need to see my doctor for my arachnophobia?
It may be time to see your healthcare provider if your intense fear of spiders:
- Interferes with your daily activities.
- Keeps you away from outdoor activities or special events with family and friends.
- Consumes your thoughts most of the time.
- Keeps you up at night.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It may be comforting to know that many people have phobias. Your healthcare provider is ready to help you. The good news is that arachnophobia is a treatable condition. With treatment and your commitment to practice the techniques you learn in therapy, you can learn to manage your fear of spiders and enjoy your life.
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