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Phobias are by their very definition extreme and irrational fears. There are good reasons to respect spiders. Some spiders carry a whopper and can kill a person. Many carry a smaller stick and can inflict a painful bite . In the middle we have the types that don’t kill the whole person, just portions of them.

Arachnophobia is the extreme, debilitating, and persistent fear of spiders. It is not the rational fear of spider bites, not the sensible caution of avoiding old wood piles where the brown recluse like to lurk, not the refusal to handle a pet tarantula4 …but the panic attack brought on by the thought of spiders, the heart palpitations and trouble breathing experienced when a spider is in the room…an anxiety level that may require treatment in order to function without debilitating obsessive/compulsive spider clearing or avoidance rituals.

There is a possible cultural basis for the high prevalence of arachnophobia in those of us of European descent. It seems that spiders were erroneously associated with the Black Plague after the tenth century. “In other words, arachnophobia began as misplaced fear during the plague (having historical basis), then was passed down through European families adding a cultural basis.” 1

Some cultures revere 8 the spider as part of their creation myths or consider them good omens or symbols of prosperity.7 Others just eat them. 2

Treatment of arachnophobia usually consists of some sort of desensitizing (gradually increasing exposure to spiders) therapy along with cognitive therapy (learning spider facts). Fruedian type analysis ("who abused me with a spider when I was a child?") is not the usual approach to therapy. A virtual reality simulation called SpiderWorld has been very effective in the treatment of arachnophobia. It combines the use of VR technology with the real world tactile stimulation of a fake spider. At times anti-anxiety drugs are used.

If you or a loved one are arachnophobic enough to interfere with or decrease quality of life I really recommend the resource #6 below. Beware there are pictures of a real tarantula being held by a former extreme arachnophobic and a picture of the simulated VR spider. There is also a link to the researcher and statistics on the remarkable results he has obtained using SpiderWorld. Apparently when arachnophobia is extreme other types of desensitization (liking dealing with real life spiders) is enough to keep many arachnophobes out of treatment. The problem and accompanying OCD like behaviors can worsen over time, eventually becoming quite debilitating. 6

1 http://www.insecta-inspecta.com/culent/arach/
2 http://wildnetafrica.co.za/wildlifearticles/zoologic/1998/arachnophobia.html
3 www.pbs.org/safarchive/4_class/45_pguides/ pguide_905/4495_phobia.html
4 http://atshq.org/
5 http://insected.arl.arizona.edu/spiderinfo.htm
6 http://www.hitl.washington.edu/research/exposure/
7 http://www.secularhumanism.org/ahal/Myths.html
8 http://wayist.tripod.com/goddess.html

I realise this starts out looking like a GTKY, but what I’m hoping to give is a practical solution to a very real problem. In order to give advice based on my personal experiences, some degree of background is necessary. Bear with me.

For the greater part of my life, I have been an arachnophobic. When confronted with a spider of almost any size, I suffered all the symptoms that momomom describes above, particularly heart palpitations and a proclivity to “freeze up”. The size and proximity of the offending arachnid were directly proportional to the severity of these effects; a relatively small spider on the other side of the room might cause me only mild discomfort, while a glowering, fist sized creature scuttling along my arm might send me into stomach cramps and general hysterics.

Being British, I share my nation with spiders that are decidedly moderate in size, generally lacking in hair or visible mandibles and without exception harmless. My phobia has pretty well precluded me from doing any serious jungle travel, or, after reading Bill Bryson’s excellent “Down Under”, visiting Australia. Seeing a tropical spider on television would ensure that I would bolt up right at 3am the following morning, screaming in a previously undiscovered falsetto voice. If I were to be taken to George Orwell’s Room 101, I would sell out my friends, family and assorted loved ones before they even opened the door.

One final personal detail is necessary here: as both a vegetarian, and general, all-round softy liberal, I don’t kill. Animals, insects, vexing small children. Barring the few million bacteria I must be constantly slaughtering, and the odd ant beneath my feet, I do my best not to harm anything. This, however, left me powerless against my fear- as “fight” was an option closed off to me, “flight” was my only recourse. I won’t go so far as to say it dominated my life, but it could make it highly inconvenient.

It might not be sound psychology, particularly moral or even rational, but one day I started to kill every spider I lay eyes on. Not in a deranged, frothing way either; I methodically would retrieve a piece of kitchen roll, stride across the room, gather it up and crush it. What became immediately apparent was that spiders no longer repulsed me. The things that previously made my skin crawl: their movement in particular, seemed irrelevant. Only spiders on television continued to bother me (and even these much less so) because I was unable to crush them in my triumphant manner.

Now, I hardly kill spiders at all. Oh sure, if one is so impertinent as to scurry onto the dining room table, I might squish it with a handy napkin for old times sake, but to be perfectly honest they simply don’t bother me anymore. My status as a two-legged war criminal, a perpetrator of gross acts of arachno-genocide, have redressed the order of nature. I can’t say for certain that if I came across an Australian Funnel-Web that I wouldn’t relapse, but only time will tell with that one. Wish me luck.

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