Often portrayed in movies, television, and other media, arachnophobia is an intense and excessive fear of spiders. Though it is common for people to feel uncomfortable and fearful around spiders, those with arachnophobia will note powerful anxiety that disrupts their daily functioning. Like other phobias, arachnophobia may require specialized therapeutic interventions to effectively treat.
What Is Arachnophobia?
Arachnophobia is a specific phobia that involves an extreme, irrational fear of spiders. Any time a person with arachnophobia sees, imagines, or hears about a spider, they experience an intense anxious reaction that affects their thinking, actions, and emotions.1 Technically, spiders are not the only type of arachnids, so being fearful of scorpions or ticks could also be part of arachnophobia.
Here are the most common categories of phobias:1
- Nature: fear of heights, storms, earthquakes, water, and drowning
- Blood, injections, or injuries: fear of shots, needles, or medical procedures
- Situations: fear of elevators, bridges, enclosed spaces, traffic
- Animals: fear of dogs, insects, and spiders
Specific phobias are a group of anxiety disorders that create an exaggerated reaction. In this way, arachnophobia is similar to:1
- Social anxiety disorder (social phobia): a condition marked by being anxious about public scrutiny and social interactions
- Agoraphobia: a disorder that results in a person being fearful about being in a large crowd or leaving home
Anxiety disorders are largely based on the fear of being in an anxiety-provoking situation and worrying about what could possibly happen if it occurs. Commonly, the fears become increasingly unlikely and unrealistic.
How Common Is Arachnophobia?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) estimates that, each year, 7-9% of people in the U.S. will have a specific phobia, and as many as 40% of all phobias are linked to either insects, snakes, or spiders.1,2 Other groups estimate that between 3-15% of people will have a fear of spiders at some point in their life. Interestingly, reports claim that 90% of arachnophobes are women.4 This high rate suggests that there is some connection between the phobia and hormonal or learned differences.
“Arachnophobia usually starts around ages 4 to 10, is more common in females than males,” says Rick Vetter, retired research associate from the University California-Riverside Entomology Department. “Arachnophobia can persist into adulthood and occurs in professions you would think would tolerate them. Even some entomologists have arachnophobia. There are very few spiders that are medically important to humans so from that point, fear is unwarranted. “
The fear of animals (zoophobia), especially fear of insects, bugs, and spiders, is a common specific phobia for people to have. Because animals are frequently encountered, these phobias can readily disrupt a person’s life and prove challenging to address.
Common Symptoms Related to the Fear of Spiders
A forceful and consistent worry about spiders will be the most obvious symptom related to the fear of spiders. People with the condition will also go to great lengths to avoid thinking about, seeing, or touching a spider. Someone with arachnophobia will often display the signs and symptoms of a specific phobia.
According to the APA, the signs of a specific phobia are:1
- High fear and anxiety, which may be expressed as crying, freezing, or irritability
- The stimuli creates immediate fear and anxiety
- The stimuli is avoided whenever possible
- The fearful response is disproportionate to the actual danger
- The fear lasts for at least 6 months
- The fear results in high levels of distress that significantly impair the person’s daily life
The final factor here is essential. With arachnophobia and other forms of specific phobia, being fearful of the trigger is not enough to receive the diagnosis. A person’s functioning level must be lowered by the symptoms. When the fear mounts, they could experience panic attacks.
Symptoms of panic related to arachnophobia include:1
- Heart beating fast, pounding heart, or palpitations
- A choking sensation
- Discomfort or pain in the chest
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Feeling very hot or cold
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Feeling detached from self or surroundings
- Feeling of dying
- Fear of losing control or going crazy
Ordinarily, these panic attack symptoms can present spontaneously and without warning, but in the case of arachnophobia, they will only come when triggered by spiders. Panic symptoms could last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.
What Causes Someone to Become Arachnophobic?
The causes of arachnophobia are not always clear, but many times a previous frightful experience with a spider or an exaggerated reaction from a loved one can result in the phobia. Other times, a person could develop an intense fear of spiders for no reason in particular.
The most common causes of arachnophobia are:3
- Traumatic experiences with a spider in the past, especially during early childhood
- Exposure to the a parent’s worries or fears involving spiders
- A history of high anxiety in the family
- Individual differences in the brain that overstimulate an area, leading to a powerful fear response
Certain psychologists believe a fear of spiders is an ingrained and evolutionarily-beneficial trait that has remained for thousands of years. Since many spiders are venomous, they may have posed a greater risk to early humans, so the fear was warranted.2 Somewhere along the line, though, spiders became much less of a threat, but the response to them remains heightened and disproportionate to the actual risk.
With all of these causes, the person has little control over the emergence of their condition. They will have to work hard to reverse the course of the condition and find ways to relieve symptoms.
Treatment For Arachnophobia
If a person has a specific phobia that is causing high levels of anxiety, they should find ways to attain professional mental health services. In cases of anxiety, people do well when receiving a combination of therapy and medication management, but due to the nature of arachnophobia, a person may only need a course of therapy to improve symptoms.
With many mental health conditions, the therapy options will vary by the education and expertise of the therapist with several options creating desirable results, but with arachnophobia, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the preferred method.3
CBT involves studying the connection between a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to minimize problematic habits and build healthier ones. CBT sessions may be one-on-one with a therapist or in group therapy sessions where many people with arachnophobia receive assistance together. In-person and online options may all prove helpful.
CBT can help people do the following:3
- Understand symptoms and triggers
- Learn new ways to respond to anxiety
- Recognize and change harmful thinking patterns
- Explore new coping skills and relaxation techniques
- Confront vs. avoid the stress
Exposure therapy, a specific type of CBT, works by encouraging the client to face their fear in a systematic and controlled way.3,5 The physical exposure to the stress breaks the association between spiders and fear. The person will realize that they are still safe and secure, despite exposure to spiders.
This form of desensitization could take place over the course of several months in just a few weeks, depending on the level of the phobia and the structure proposed by the therapist.
By gradually exposing someone to spiders, they can start to tolerate the following:
- Thoughts about spiders
- Seeing spiders
- Being in the same room as a spider
- Touching a spider
- Having a spider crawl on them
Using medication to treat phobias may be helpful, while in other cases, allowing the client to experience the full intensity of their anxiety may assist with the exposure process. Prescribers may offer medications to address overall anxiety or stress stemming from other sources.
Possible medications used to treat high anxiety and phobias are:3
- Benzodiazepines: alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin) and diazepam (Valium) are some benzodiazepine options that help produce a feeling of calm. These should only be used on a short-term basis or if the symptoms are intense, but not frequent.
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), citalopram (Celexa), sertraline (Zoloft), or escitalopram (Lexapro) work by regulating the levels of serotonin in the brain and might be good options to decrease overall anxiety
- Other: psychiatrists and other physicians may prescribe other sedatives, tranquilizers, and beta blockers to manage anxiety
People should always focus on taking their medications as prescribed and communicate with their providers whenever unwanted side effects or issues develop. Open communication with mental health providers is essential.
8 Tips to Overcome Fear of Spiders
For some people, overcoming the fear of spiders can be accomplished in an afternoon, but for others with arachnophobia, it takes a coordinated effort from a team of mental health professionals. Along the way, there are plenty of lifestyle changes one can make to diminish their spider fears, including getting restful sleep, plenty of exercise, and eating healthy foods.
8 tips for coping when you have a phobia of spiders are:2,3
1. Understand the triggers and symptoms.
Many people quickly recognize their trigger and anxious symptoms as being related to spiders, but others may not understand the connection. They may think their symptoms are unrelated or random, which only results in confusion and a lack of focus on problem solving.
2. Decreasing overall stress.
Panic attacks, phobias, anxiety, and stress are all interrelated. If you want to manage your fear of spiders, you’ll have to reduce your overall stress. Take a brief inventory of daily stressors to see what can be avoided or changed. Lower stress makes arachnophobia less severe and easier to manage.
3. Increase overall relaxation.
There is only so much stress a person can reduce, so increasing relaxation will be essential. You can increase relaxation learning and practice techniques like autogenic training, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, meditation, and deep breathing.
4. Improve physical state.
Your physical health is intimately tied to your mental health. How you eat, sleep, and move can improve or worsen your anxiety and phobia. Prioritize healthy foods, restful sleep, and plenty of exercise to boost your resiliency.
5. Expose, don’t avoid.
Just as they teach in exposure therapy, don’t avoid spiders. Find situations to be around them, and if you see one crawling across the wall, don’t hide. Take the opportunity to study it and find some appreciation for the way it moves and the purpose it fulfills.
6. Watch Spider-man movies.
It may seem like an odd concept, but working on the principles of exposure therapy, watching Spider-man can reduce symptoms.
7. Work with the professionals.
If your symptoms are hard to shake, get professional mental health treatment as quickly as possible. Phobias may not simply go away on their own, and therapy can quickly shrink the power that the fear of spiders has on your life and overall well-being.
8. Trust in the process.
The best ways to get over your fear of spiders will not always be the most fun or most comfortable because your discomfort is needed to get better. Trust that exposure is the way to recovery and remind yourself of this whenever faced with a challenging situation.
How to Get Help For the Fear of Spiders
Although therapists may not specifically specialize in arachnophobia, many have plenty of experience in managing phobias. Use a therapist directory to find a therapist that can help reduce your fear of spiders. Support groups offer services to help people cope with phobias. Even though they do include mental health professionals, support groups are great ways to build a network of supportive people who have experience living with phobias.
Living with an intense and overpowering fear of spiders may feel like being in prison, but with professional therapy and a willingness to change, people can free themselves from the phobia. No one has to let arachnophobia control them.