Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia

“Sex-crazed spiders the size of your hand, invading British homes” 1

REALLY?!?!

It’s autumn and, as every year, headlines strike fear into the hearts of UK arachnophobes. With around 45% of UK adults reporting some degree of fear of spiders, there is certainly an audience. But why are we so scared of spiders?

I actually quite like spiders. I feel guilty, when I hoover up a spider’s web, about all the work they must have put in. I put it down to many childhood readings of Charlotte’s Web, but a big spider, running unexpectedly across my bedroom floor, still makes me jump and my heart beat a little faster. Why?

 

“We used to blame our parents, now we can blame it on our genes”2 

The commonly held theory that phobias stem from a traumatic childhood experience still holds up in many cases. Fear of buttons (koumpounophobia) is more common than you might imagine. Steve Jobs’ was reported to be a sufferer, resulting in his well-known penchant for a polar neck. Perhaps an influential adult’s well meaning, but over fearful warnings about the potential choking hazards of buttons was the cause? I’ve seen several clients with emetophobia (fear of vomiting) that they can directly attribute to either a parent being sick, or a parent’s reaction when they were sick.

But spiders seem to be different. Neuro-scientist Robert Sapolsky does an excellent TED talk3 about how humans make decisions. He traces decisions we make in a split second, in the present, back to whether our ancestors were warring tribesmen or peaceful goat herders through a process of genetic memory… epigenetics. Basically, our genes can be altered by environmental factors, which then gives us an inheritable trait.

So, if humans have lived alongside potentially dangerous spiders for millions of years, it makes sense that we pass on a fear, that we are ‘programmed’ to be alarmed by them.

 

You probably won’t want a pet one! 

People with arachnophobia very rarely turn into budding arachnologists (although never say never) but this is not to say that you can’t get rid of a debilitating spider phobia.

People with a flying phobia (aerophobia… not as good a name as the button one!) will probably never want to take up professional stunt flying as a hobby. They can, however, be perfectly capable of comfortably managing a flight to Spain for a holiday.

It’s the same with spiders. When a big, fast moving spider makes me jump I’m easily able to access the intellectual, rational parts of my brain that fully understand that there are no dangerous spiders in the UK, that this spider is scared of me, that it is an important part of the local ecosystem, and just wants to go about its spider-business without bothering me. This is what we’re aiming for with hypnotherapy. It is entirely possible for you to be able to get rid of the panic (flight/fight) reaction and to feel calm, reasonable, and rational about siders, and it’s all to do with neuroscience.

 

Neurons that fire together, wire together. 

Everything that we understand and perceive about the world is down to chains of neurons firing, and making connections, in our brains. Neurons that fire together, wire together. The more often we repeat a pattern of connections (a behaviour or thought) the stronger, faster and more efficient they get. So, you have a toddler with a genetic pre-disposition to be wary of spiders, add to that a protective parent, with the same genetic trait, who whisks them off the floor every time a spider appears. Pretty soon you have a child who cries every time they see a spider, then a teenager who stands on a chair and screams when they see a spider, then an adult who stays upstairs all afternoon until help arrives because they saw a spider on the stairs. And the neurons firing in the limbic system, the primitive, emotional part of the brain, think “Ah ha… this is a pretty good strategy, infact so far this has been 100% effective in keeping us safe from spiders” and it’ll strengthen that wiring, encourage you to do the same thing again tomorrow, and do it faster!

 

It’s not what you think, it’s how you feel.

These avoidance strategies can be so effective that they even stop people from seeking help to get over a phobia. Commonly prescribed therapies such a CBT involve a “challenge your thoughts” type approach and often some forms of exposure therapy. This can be difficult. Arachnophobes in the UK already know that their thinking around spiders isn’t helpful, and exposure can sometimes even strengthen the fear. These challenging approaches with their emphasis on faulty thinking do very little to change how clients feel.

Hypnotherapy is different. It is well evidenced to be an effective treatment for all types of phobia, and it’s easy! Honestly… really, really easy! For the client, all it takes is the ability to relax and daydream.

To finish this article, I thought it might be useful to give the last word to Hannah. Hannah is a clever, capable woman, who had a terrible fear of spiders. Here is her experience of getting rid of her lifelong arachnophobia though hypnotherapy: (full disclosure here, I work with Hannah in the NHS, and persuaded her to try Hypnotherapy with me when I was training. She liked it so much she went on to train as a Solution Focused Hypnotherapist and now works with me at Green Tree Therapy too.)

 

Hannah’s Story.

“They’re more scared of you than you are of them!”, how many times have people with arachnophobia been blessed with these words of wisdom! Intellectually I understood that the spiders in my house would cause me no harm at all. However, this didn’t stop my brain from implementing its spider survival patter. A pattern which for 28 years had, kept me safe and had a 100% success rate. Each time I saw a spider, my heart would race, I would instantly feel sick and run to a safe space or shout (very loudly) to my partner for help! Delightful… thanks brain!

Alex explained that unlike other methods I had naively researched on trusty google, Solution Focused Hypnotherapy does not entail some form of ‘I’m a celebrity’ style bush tucker trial scenario to remove a phobia! (Thank goodness!!)

On the first session there was an explanation of how phobias are formed, how hypnotherapy helps to get rid of them and what ‘trance‘is.

I really enjoyed the trance aspect. Trance is a relaxed daydreaming like state which, in the first second session, Alex used to help relieve stress and boost confidence. The third session was all about using trance to ‘mess up’ the pattern of anxiety I had created around spiders and the final, fourth session was what’s called a reframe session, where I was able to imagine an easier alternative, a day where I could get on with my life without trying to avoid spiders.

It was so easy and simple, I didn’t feel worried, panicked or anxious at any time. In fact, quite the opposite, I felt in control in every session aware that I was smiling in trance and I really enjoyed the process. I remember saying to Alex after my first session I felt like my brain had, had a massage.

I left my final session wanting to see a spider and ready to put this to the test! (having previously done almost anything to avoid spiders I should have noticed this was already a big change for me!).

These days I most definitely wouldn’t be in a rush to buy a pet tarantula! But now, when I see a spider, those horrible physical feelings of anxiety are gone. I used to dread autumn, knowing the spider invasion would soon begin. I wish I had tried hypnotherapy long before and could have enjoyed the winter months without living in fear of an encounter with an 8-legged friend…. I imagine the spiders are pretty relieved too!

Here I am, on day trip with my family, just hanging out with a tarantula:)

IMG 27622914

Ref:

1) The Daily Mirror, 25/08/20

2) Louden Wainwright III, 1994 from ‘Grown Man’

3) Robert Sapolsky, The Biology of Our Best and Worst Selves. TED talk

Back to School

Back to School

I heard a phrase that resonated with me the other day; September… the Monday of all months!

This September feels a little more ‘Monday’ than most, and I wonder if this might be to do with how we humans adapt to change?

We have had an extraordinary, and pretty tough few months, but we’ve kind of got used to it a bit. It doesn’t feel so odd to wear a mask to the shops anymore, it seems much more natural to keep our distance from people, and the weather has been kind to us. A long, dry spring and summer has meant that a lot of us have made the most of outdoor activity. Even when we were all locked in, the hour stroll round the neighbourhood was much improved by the absence of pouring rain. 

Schools ‘broke up’ for summer. In practical terms it didn’t make much difference, but it feels more normal to have slightly bored teenagers mooching around the house in August than it did in April. Some people have even managed to get away on holiday. Our collective stress levels seem to have calmed down a bit as we’ve adapted.

But September is just around the corner, and we’re going to have to change again. The weather is changing, there is a coolness in the wind that wasn’t there before and the days are noticeably shorter. That outside get-together with friends does not seem quite so much fun when you have to wear a coat and take a brolly.

And schools are starting up again.

It is a biggy. I see older people getting cross with teenagers not socially distancing in a way they feel is appropriate, the Facebook anxiety posts are ramping up again and I’ve heard the words ‘second wave’ almost daily for the last few weeks.

So, how can we do it? How can we negotiate another change in a way that is as comfortable and stress free as possible?

Well I think firstly, whether you’re anxious about going back to school or collage yourself,  parent anxious about your kids going to school, an older person worried about your health if infection rates rise again, or a teacher worried about managing risk and the massive logistics that must involve, keep in mind that we are all in the same choppy sea, all just doing our best to keep swimming. And even with the vast array of personalities, choices, opinions and behaviours we do all have some neuroscience in common when it comes to dealing with change, and understanding it can be helpful:

We all see change as a threat. Whether it’s good change, bad change, or completely indifferent change. If you think about it this makes sense. Imagine you’re living in a jungle and have got used to avoiding the dangerous snakes. You’ve remembered where they hang out, what time they come out to eat, learnt to recognise the poisonous one from the non-poisonous ones, and suddenly a large cat with orange stripes and big teeth turns up… its not in your interest to think “Oh how cute and fluffy, I’ll go and have a closer look” Quite the opposite. It’s in your interest to be worried, to stay away, to watch carefully “Ooh, it’s just eaten that monkey… think I’ll stay well clear!” 

It doesn’t even need to be something so dramatic. A different colour snake would have the same effect. It looks similar to the ones that don’t bite, but you don’t know it’s safe, so you treat it with fear and suspicion until you’ve gained more experience.

So, it is in our non-jungle dwelling lives. Change fires up our limbic system, the ancient, primitive parts of our brain whose primary job it is to keep us safe. And just as with the different colour snake, it doesn’t even need to be a big change. Anyone who has ever worked in a communal office will tell you the trouble it causes if people have to swap desks!

Now we have some pretty big changes to deal with, and our poor overworked limbic system is all fired up and ready to go with some useful strategies:

  • Anxiety:Is fairly obvious. We’re not designed to be far from our panic button if we’re walking through the jungle.
  • Anger:Natures way of making us stronger, braver, and fiercer in case we have to fight something off. All those posts by worried middle-aged people, full of vitriol about teenagers not social distancing (and there’s some really nasty ones) is not because they’re horrible human beings, its because their limbic system is trying to keep them safe.
  • Depression:if caveman looks out of his cave and the environment looks dangerous its not in his interest to feel optimistic, energetic, or enthusiastic. No, he will be safer if he feels exhausted and miserable, pulls the rug over his head, and avoids the world, avoids the snakes, avoids dangerous activity until things improve.

It’s not that our brains are doing anything ‘wrong’ when we suffer from anxiety, anger, or depression problems… sometimes we just have the dial set a bit high.

What we want is a state where we are saving the limbic system for emergency use only, and spending most of the time in the intellectual, reasonable, creative, and problem-solving parts of our brain. This part is generally pretty positive. It doesn’t mean every day is like Disney Land, but our intellectual brains will make a proper assessment of a situation, and come up with a much more reasonable and helpful narrative. So, for example, instead of posting angrily on Facebook, it might recognise that most of us made some poor choices as teenagers, and be a bit calmer and more understanding. 

Solution Focused Brief Therapy and Solution Focused Hypnotherapy are evidenced ways dealing with all manner of psychological problems (if you’d like to know more I always offer a free first appointment) but in the mean-time here are three techniques clients find really useful in managing change.

  • Look for past success:Think back, was there a time previously that you have already managed change in a way that felt comfortable? What did you do? What were you telling yourself? What behaviours were helpful?
  • Imagine the future: but you must do this right! If you are going to play the “what if?” game, you may as well play it in your favour. Ask yourself, if you were to find yourself dealing really well with life, what might you be pleased to notice about yourself? What might other people notice? If you were to find myself at your best in the coming weeks, how would you know?
  • Notice the present:Our brains are so good at keeping us thinking about a problem, but this simple technique can make all the difference… Keep a diary of what went well today. When were you pleased with yourself? What were you pleased to notice yourself managing despite your worries? Write as many as you can think of, every little thing. When you think you’ve run out, write 5 more! It’s so simple, and so effective in giving us a bit of balance.

And remember, September is also the time of new pencil cases, fresh starts, and comfy jumpers. Whatever it brings, I wish you all the very best.

Alex

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