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