Eventhough very few species of spiders are really dangerous, the fear of spiders or arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias. It manifests itself by an excessive fear at the origin of totally disproportionate reactions to an animal which is however harmless in most cases. The presence of the animal, or even the simple fact of imagining or seeing it in a picture, is enough to trigger an anxiety attack in arachnophobic patients. Uncontrolled, arachnophobia can cause major dysfunctions in a person’s life and treatment by a psychotherapist may be required.

What is a phobia?

Usually, fear is a useful emotion that helps protect us by causing us to act or flee in the face of danger. Each individual has fears such as preferring the stairs to the elevator, being anxious before taking the plane, etc. In the majority of cases, everyone lives with their fears and comes to terms with them.

On the other hand, when the fear becomes overwhelming in the absence of real danger or significantly impacts the person’s life (monopolizing their thoughts, influencing their choices, etc.), then it becomes pathological. We thus talk of phobia.

phobia is an anxiety disorder. Thus, the person suffering from a phobia is fully aware that their fear is irrational and excessive, without, however, being able to resist the need to avoid the object of their phobia. A phobia is considered serious and requiring care when the latter forces the suffering individual to restrict their activities and significantly impact their quality of life.

What is arachnophobia?

Arachnophobia is the most widespread fear among zoophobies, i.e. fear of animals. Although the majority of spiders are harmless to humans, they can trigger extremely intense and unreasonable fear in some individuals.

The fear of spiders, and more generally of arachnids, generally manifests itself very early in childhood. It sometimes even exists in several members of the same family. There are several hypotheses to explain the origin of this disorder:

  • The fear of spiders would be a distant legacy of our ancestors who were actually confronted with the bites of these animals. Arachnophobia would therefore belong to so-called natural fears such as those of emptiness or darkness, essential to the survival of our species in a hostile environment;
  • The image of arachnids conveyed in various media such as television or cinema would inspire fear;
  • A bad experience with a spider.


The symptoms caused by arachnophobia vary widely, on the one hand from one individual to another, on the other hand according to the intensity of the fear. Thus, in some individuals, it is the presence of the animal that triggers the anxiety, while in others a simple photograph is sufficient.

The phobic crisis results in a set of symptoms including:

  • Intense fear with a desire to flee;
  • Accelerated breathing;
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweat;
  • Pain in the chest;
  • Headache ;
  • Cries, tears;
  • Loss of urine;
  • Paralysis, inability to do something;
  • Sometimes loss of consciousness.

The anticipation of fear can also cause the person’s to withdraw into themselves and to limit their activities with social consequences, sometimes significant. In severe cases, depressive syndrome or chronic anxiety may set in.

How to treat arachnophobia

In the case of simple arachnophobia , that is to say without very intense symptoms, it is possible to confront the animal in order to tame the fear itself. A progressive exposure (for example in a zoo) to the object of fears as well as an effort of documentation make it possible to reduce the fear of the animal. The important thing is to go at your own pace. 

For some people, the simple fact of having to write the word “spider” makes them anxious, so for them it is necessary to start by being able to write the word, even if several attempts are necessary. Afterwards, the patient can view drawings of spiders, then pictures and finally videos, for example. It is necessary to proceed very gradually, and not to move on to the next step until the current one is done in a completely harmless way.

When the phobia is too intense with disabling symptoms, and in the event of too great an impact on the quality of life of patients, the patient requires appropriate treatment by a specialist.

Cognitive-behavioral therapies associated with certain relaxation techniques have already proven their worth against these phobias. Sometimes drug therapy can be combined with the patient’s psychotherapy. Note that no drug can cure the phobia. They just help reduce the symptoms of an anxiety attack (anxiolytics) or treat depression (antidepressants) that may be associated.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for arachnophobia

Cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT is a brief psychotherapy that focuses on the interactions between an individual’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors. This type of therapy aims to solve current problems in the patient, while taking into account their causes and their history. It is based on 3 fundamental principles: interactivity (the patient is an actor in his treatment, he must invest him or herself), pedagogy and collaboration.

Cognitive behavioral therapies are based on confronting the patient with their fears. Several exposure techniques exist:

  • Desensitization: It is possible to control and ultimately overcome phobias with the use of desensitization techniques. It may be carried out by a psychologist or psychotherapist, or by a patient who is prepared to put in the effort to carry out systematic desensitization at home on their own. The ultimate objective of therapy is to let the patient to experience events that would ordinarily cause worry, fear, and stress without feeling any tension or discomfort.
  • In-vivo therapy, that is to say a confrontation with a real spider or in virtual reality;
  • Therapy on traumatic memory. The goal is to let the patient talk about his painful experience, when it exists, so that he evacuates all the emotion that is linked to it. In this way, the therapist de-dramatizes the experience in order to reduce the anxiety related to the phobia.

One or more of these techniques can be employed by the therapist, according to the needs of the patient.  Cognitive behavioral therapy allows the patient to understand the mechanisms of negative thoughts at the origin of maladaptive behaviors such as phobia. 

The objective is to gradually, with the help of the therapist, overcome the symptoms that make the patient suffer by learning and reinforcing adapted behaviors. A session usually lasts between 30 minutes to 1 hour at a rate of 1 to 2 sessions per week. Outside of the sessions, the patient may have exercises to perform.

Hypnosis or sophrology can also be used to reduce the patient’s anxiety in the event of a confrontation or anticipation of the presence of the animal.

Elena Mars

Elena writes part-time for the Scientific Origin, focusing mostly on health-related issues.