Some five out of 100 people in the United States have one or more phobias, with women slightly more likely to develop one than men. One of the most common phobias is arachnophobia, a debilitating fear of spiders, says Alan Manavitz, MD, clinical psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

Arachnophobia Definition

Arachnophobia comes from the Greek word for spider, which is “arachne,” and “phobos,” the Greek word for fear. This extreme fear of spiders and other eight-legged arachnids (like scorpions) may actually be an evolutionary response: spiders, specifically poisonous ones, have long been linked to illness and infections.

“We know many species of spiders are poisonous and bite, and we know this from direct experience, science, biology, TV, and seeing other people get bitten,” he says. “Therefore, when we see a spider near us, a natural response is to feel fear and avoid the spider.”

In many people, the fear of spiders elicits a “disgust response,”  People with severe arachnophobia have such an extreme aversion to spiders that they may be afraid to go into their basement or garage because a spider may be present. If they encounter a spider, they may actually leave the house rather than deal with it.

“When it causes such anxiety that it stops us from participating in activities that we want or need to do, or manifests itself in such a way that it can be physically and mentally debilitating, we know our fear of spiders has become irrational,” Dr. Manavitz says.

Causes of Arachnophobia

As with other phobias, arachnophobia can develop in a person because she sees the reaction to spiders of others with the phobia. For them, it’s a learned response—it makes an impression when they see a family member shriek in terror and run out of the house at the very sight of a cobweb. Some experts theorize that a fear of spiders is influenced by one’s cultural background. In certain areas of Africa, large spiders are feared, for instance, but in South Africa, where spiders are eaten, people may be unafraid of them.

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If you have had a traumatic experience involving a spider, like a spider bite, chances are that you will be more likely to develop arachnophobia.

Arachnophobia Symptoms

Symptoms of arachnophobia can appear initially during childhood or adolescence. It also can manifest itself in adults. The typical symptoms are:

  • Dizziness
  • Trembling and sweating
  • Feelings of losing control
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Chest pain
  • Feeling of choking
  • Nausea or other gastrointestinal distress

Treatments for Arachnophobia

Often, a combination of counseling and medication may be used to treat arachnophobia. Relaxation techniques such as meditation also can be helpful in the treatment of arachnophobia.

As with other phobias, arachnophobia can be treated with exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In cognitive behavioral therapy, the therapist tries to replace the negative automatic thoughts associated with spiders with more rational thoughts. A therapist may use systemic desensitization to treat arachnophobia. “This is the method of learning relaxation techniques and then confronting our fears from what we fear the least to what we fear the most,” Dr. Manavitz explains.

With cognitive reframing, a person can learn to change the way she looks at spiders so that she no longer perceives them as disgusting and dangerous. Eventually, a person can change her physical reaction to seeing a spider.

Sometimes, an antidepressant or an anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed as a way to combat arachnophobia, Dr. Manavitz says. And some individuals with arachnophobia get help from virtual reality therapy, in which they are exposed to virtual representations of spiders. This may be just as effective as the older technique of gradually exposing the individual to live spiders, some research shows.

Overcome Your Fear

Read up on spiders. You will learn that they rarely bite people unless they are threatened. Occasionally, a spider bite can cause an allergic reaction. But while bites from some spiders like the venomous black widow and the brown recluse spider can be dangerous, most spider bites are harmless.

Keep in mind that spiders in general—and this includes the much-feared black widow and brown recluse-bite just in self-defense when they are trapped between your skin and another object. Also, you should be aware that while there are more than 63,000 species of spiders in the world, just 2% of them are dangerous.

Steer clear of spiders: store firewood outside to avoid bringing spiders into the house. Install tight-fitting screens on your doors and windows, and seal off any cracks where spiders could enter. ∙Make sure there are no rocks or lumber right outside your house since spiders like hanging out in these areas.  Make sure your attic and garage are free of spider webs.

Discuss your fear of spiders with your loved ones and tell them you are getting treatment for your condition.  Ask your health care provider to recommend a professional who can help you overcome your arachnophobia.

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Last Updated: Sep 12, 2019