Me and my phobia
I wasn’t always scared of spiders. I remember being very little and happily letting tiny red spiders run over my hands and along our garden wall.
I don’t know for sure, but I have a hunch that my phobia was launched the day my mother was hoovering the sitting room when I was about 4 years old. We had long, heavy velvet curtains that hung to the floor. As she pulled one back to hoover underneath it, the floor filled with a tsunami of baby spiders surging across the carpet towards me. My mother screamed as she tried to suck them all up, and I leapt on a chair in horror.
For decades now, I have been living in fear; hyper-alert and disproportionately sensitive to a danger that is not actually dangerous. It holds me back and stops me from feeling fully independent.
I am an occupational therapist teaching students at St George’s University of London and conducting research in stroke rehabilitation, but today I speak to you as a (former?) arachnophobe.
In this article, I share my experience of finally confronting my fear at London Zoo’s Friendly Spider Programme. I want fellow arachnophobes to feel comfortable reading this, so there will be no images or vivid descriptions of the arachnids.
Facing my fear
The friendly spider programme (FSP) at London Zoo is based on a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), hypnotherapy, and exposure therapy, and is led by hypnotherapist John Clifford and London Zoo’s spider expert, Dave Clarke. A recent systematic review of research evidence found that hypnosis and CBT can be powerful in reducing phobias, and having been reliably informed that the FSP has a good reputation, I am optimistic that they can help me.
As we settle into our afternoon at the zoo, John tells us we don’t really know where spider phobia comes from, but we do know that typically an arachnophobe is ‘a bit of a worrier… the kind of person who sees danger everywhere before it happens’. That’s me!
As a group, we explore what it is we dislike about spiders (the legs, mainly), and where we worry about seeing them (the bath, the bed, the car, in a shoe, on a towel…). We share our common reactions to seeing them: crying, screaming, freezing, escaping. These are all natural survival responses. John acknowledges that people can relish exploiting our fears by teasing us, making us jump and frightening us. This can leave us feeling vulnerable, so it feels healing hearing my secret, shameful problem understood with empathy and kindness.
From time to time, Dave interjects to correct any anti-spider words used. They are not ‘invading’, he says, they are just coming into the same space as us. We need to stop using language that infers they are out to get us. They are just another species making their own way in the world.
Dave used to be scared of spiders himself, and now he’s the myth-busting spider expert at London Zoo. We learn that there are 50,000 species of spiders on the planet, and our fee for attending the day has helped spider conservation! It is NOT true that spiders crawl into our ears at night to lay their eggs, or that we eat them while we are asleep with our mouths open. That is a relief. They are over 350 million years old! Humans tend to fear that which we don’t understand, but we should promote and value diversity in the eco system, just as we do in our human communities.
After a break, John leads group hypnosis. Lying down is a relief after so much spider talk, and John guides us to let all our negative thoughts and feelings about spiders float away on a cloud. We mentally rehearse: I am calm, safe and relaxed in the presence of spiders, now and ever more.
Spiders are safe.
The next part of the day is where the real work starts. We tread solemnly in quiet anticipation towards the part of the zoo where the spiders live. It’s time for encounters, and we are armed with the super-powers of exhaling, dropping our shoulders and repeating our mantras. It’s tough, and I am way out of my comfort zone. I sweat a lot and cry involuntarily as I push myself to face my fears. But incredibly, it really does get easier every time I do something new. Systematic desensitisation is a graded form of exposure therapy, where we gradually build up to engaging with something we are frightened of while using relaxation techniques. At the zoo, I objectively observe this in action. Horror wells up in me in a surge the first time I force myself to look at or get close to a new specimen, but the second time that visceral reaction is lessened, and the third time it’s really ok.
The goal of the day is to be able to cover a spider with a pot, slide a piece of card underneath and lift pot, spider and card from a table. This is a huge goal for me, and is only made possible thanks to the unending patience and kindness of the volunteers who quietly support us as we take baby steps, panic, retreat, calm ourselves, and try again. We may not magically become spider lovers through this process, but we will be able to recall that we have dealt with them calmly before and can do it again.
Goal achieved and certificate in hand, I am elated. I chose not to hold Carol the tarantula, but I did manage to get close enough to take photos for others as they stroked her soft fur. As Dave tells us, there is no normal and people will all have different experiences, but the success rate of the programme is high.
From the zoo to the real world
In the week that follows, I’m even more jumpy than before. Every hair or piece of fluff feels or looks spidery. I’m on edge, wondering when the next spider encounter will occur — because next time I will need to put my courage to the test. Dave has warned us we will still get a ‘surprise’ when we see a spider — that’s normal — but we need to remember we are safe and calm. I wonder what will happen when the time comes.
And the time does come. Getting ready for bed, I hear my partner calling me: “If you would like the opportunity to try out your new skills, there is a spider in the bath!” I have never had an invitation like this, and certainly would not have accepted it before now. But, I am ready. I remember my strategies: exhale, drop shoulders, remember I am safe, calm and relaxed in the presence of spiders, now and ever more. No fuss, no drama, job done.
I message someone I met at the course to share my monumental success story with someone who will understand. She replies saying, “That’s amazing!! I’m so proud of you!! I haven’t come across any yet, but I noticed I felt very friendly about one living in the window frame!”. She asks me how I feel now I have got the first one out of the way. I reply: “Amaaaaaziiing!!! Relieved! Proud.”
I have learnt that fear is not something to be ashamed of, and it is certainly not something to tease or taunt others about. Spiders are animals making their way in the world, just like deer, dolphins, pandas, and people. It can take courage to challenge our prejudices as speciesism, (in this case, discrimination against spiders), but learning to understand and live alongside each other in harmony is in the interests of us all.