Dr Sophie Li
Clinical psychologist Sophie Li gives us the lowdown on crippling fear of spiders. Image: Dr Sophie Li
© Dr Sophie Li

Clinical psychologist Sophie Li gives us the lowdown on crippling fear of spiders.

1. What is arachnophobia?

Arachnophobia is an excessive fear of spiders that results in the affected person actively avoiding direct contact with spiders, or even any mention or depiction (e.g. photos or pictures) of them. The process of avoiding spiders usually has a significant impact on their daily life by either restricting where they can go, what they can do, or resulting in significant emotional distress.

2. How does one develop arachnophobia?

There are several theories. One is that through evolutionary processes we are predisposed to develop a fear of things that threatened the safety of early humans (e.g. snakes, spiders, heights). Another is that fear of spiders is promoted through cultural and social mechanisms. For example, spiders are usually depicted as creepy, dangerous and threatening. Finally, a fear of spiders may develop because of a past unpleasant experience with a spider.

3. Is there a treatment or a cure?

The most effective and widely used treatment for arachnophobia is exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is based on the idea that a person with arachnophobia believes something catastrophic will happen when they are confronted by a spider, and because they avoid contact with spiders they are never given the opportunity to see that what they fear will happen does not actually occur. Exposure therapy requires the person to confront the spider in order to gather factual, corrective information about spider behavior and the level of threat actually posed by spiders. Arachnophobia is very treatable, with some studies showing over 90% of people show clinically significant improvements in spider related anxiety.

4. What do arachnophobes think will happen when they see a spider?

People with arachnophobia are usually able to identify that their thoughts are irrational or unlikely to occur. Despite this, they cannot help but believe, with strong conviction that the catastrophe will occur. Common thoughts are: “The spider will fly at me or jump on me”, “Spiders are fast and unpredictable so I will be unable to avoid it and it will crawl on me”, “Spiders are aggressive and venomous so if one gets on me it will bite me and harm me”. Other thoughts: “It will crawl into my nose/eye/ear and get stuck”, “it will lay eggs under my skin” or “it will get on me and cause a disfiguring rash."

5. What kind of impact does arachnophobia have on a person’s life?

People with arachnophobia are usually good at avoiding spiders, sometimes so good they forget the impact their fear of spiders has on their lives. They will often avoid garages, attics, quiet corners of the garden and places where they have seen spiders before as well as check for spiders in their rooms, when they are out and in their car; are unable to go camping or bush walking. I once met a person who would travel to Europe in the Australian summer to avoid spiders!

Clinical Psychologist Dr Sophie Li will join a toxicologist and arachnologist to host upcoming Night Talk: Should We Fear Spiders? on Tuesday 21 March.

Following the Night Talk Dr Li will run a half-day workshop: Treating Arachnophobia on Saturday 25 March. Using cognitive behavioural therapy, including controlled exposure and live demonstrations, the workshop will lead participants through the process of confronting and overcoming their fears.