Movies, books, trips- even candy- can make your
existence miserable in this spider dominated world if you
belong to the unlucky 5% of the U.S. population who is
terrified of these members of the arachnid family. I, for
one, was the only second grader on my block who has never
read E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.” Judging by the
picture on the cover of the sweet, unsuspecting girl and the
vicious spider hanging over her, I immediately decided the book was horrifying and unworthy of reading. Fifteen years later, I am still appalled at the thought of poor school
children somewhere picking up the spider infested book.
Arachnophobia, or the “abnormal and persistent fear of
spiders” (MedicineNet.com) is the most common kind of specific phobia and it has run my life ever since I can remember. To me, an alarmed spider-averter on the
constant lookout for the enemy, spider imagery seems to be
lurking everywhere. Ruthless movie directors torture me by casting these eight-legged tyrants in even the most frivolous scenes. I’m sure “Home Alone” would have still been a comedic masterpiece without the repulsive close-up of Buzz McCallister’s pet tarantula. In “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” spider Aragog has been given the dimensions of a wooly mammoth and is portrayed to have the strength to bring Muhammad Ali to his knees. And if those scenes aren’t hostile enough to someone who goes into a panic attack at the mere thought of a spider, let me remind you of the movies “Arachnophobia” and “Eight Legged Freaks” in which screenwriters boldly manifest their love affairs with these creatures by creating entire movies devoted to them.
But the terror extends beyond movies. Can you imagine being frightened of looking up words beginning with “spi-” in the dictionary because you might see a picture of a spider on that page. I can. I’ve also been known to throw a book across the room, if a picture does indeed pop up.
If adorned with webs and spiders, I refuse to eat, or even touch, candy in Halloween wrappers. I’ve also run away from a family vacation in Lake George, as the densely wooded area had been conquered by spiders. I’ve taken down a hanging plant in my room, certain it would eventually become a good nesting place. Prior to falling asleep, or getting out of bed, I do spot checks on my walls and ceiling to ensure they are spider-free. However, if you’re not arachnophobic, such behavior is difficult to comprehend, and my terror may appear as an ungrounded caprice.
Associate Professor of Biochemistry at New York University, Dr. Burt Goldberg, says arachnophobia is a real disease, capable of eliciting “neurotic responses and
psychotic behavior,” responses intrinsic to phobias. However, depending on the intensity of the phobia, some people are spared neuroses, but rather have milder reactions, such as avoiding the object or situation they are afraid of, reducing their anxiety. Dr. Hunter Hoffman, cognitive psychologist featured on the PBS show “Spiders!: Arachnophobia” states in a series of online Q& A that running away is rather debilitating in the long run as it advances spider avoidance. “Little by little, with each avoidance, phobics become less confident in their ability to deal with spiders and/or their panic reaction to the spider.” Hoffman explains fleeing from a spider should be monitored, as this innocent act can swell into a full blown phobia.
But besides fear, phobias cause physiological reactions. Adrenaline is released and bodily functions speed up. The heart beats faster and blood pressure rises, as the body enters one of two modes: either flight- the sudden need to escape, or immobilization- standing frozen with fear.
Goldberg, however, clarifies that it isn’t really the
spider I, or any other arachnophobe, is afraid of. Nor are
xenophobes afraid of strangers or claustrophobics afraid of
closed-in spaces. “The fear phobias bring about is not of
the object itself, but of the association the mind makes
when that object is present,” Goldberg explains.
Goldberg, himself a claustrophobic, associates his fear with the fourteen months he spent confined to a tiny area, reeking of sweat, blood, and other bodily fluids in Vietnam. Now, each time he enters a narrow room his mind associates the small setting with the horrible stench, causing him to suffer a panic attack. Goldberg feels treatment – cognitive behavioral therapy and medications used to control the panic attacks – although instrumental, does not rid one of his phobia. Instead, one comes to terms with the traumatic association it is triggered by.
On the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais website, cyber-psychologist, Dr. Stephane Bouchard is enthusiastic to familiarize phobics with their fears; but instead of the traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, Bouchard uses more innovative methods of phobia treatment- virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET). In a VRET session, through special 3-D visors and a computer generated setting, arachnophobes walk through rooms invaded by spiders. Bouchard claims this therapy is effective, because phobias are “the product of emotions, not of logic or actual danger.” Thus, being thrust into a virtual setting evokes emotions, comparable to “feeling” fear, contentment, revulsion, etc., when watching a movie – the partaker is aware the situation is hypothetical, but immerses himself into the experience regardless.
Nonetheless, Goldberg feels fear is healthy. “Treating a phobia does not mean you stop being afraid. You remain afraid, but you tell yourself ‘I can do this.’ I control my phobia, it doesn’t control me,” Goldberg added.
Thus far, I have been letting my fear control me,
experiencing a certain paralysis running from my neck and
down my spine at the sight of a spider. Remaining terror-stricken, the concept of VRET – walking into a spider plagued setting, virtual, or not – fails to soothe me just yet. The only comfort I have been able to find comes in knowing that the urban myth that the average human swallows eight spiders during his lifetime while asleep is nothing more than misinformation taken from a 1954 book on insect behavior. So, I can sleep in serenity – of course, after conducting my routine spot checks.