One of the most common phobias I come across involves creepy crawlies, and spiders in particular. Spiders are around all year but in the northern hemisphere they are most active in the mating season, towards the end of summer and early autumn. This is when we’re most likely to see them running across the floor or climbing up walls as the males look for a mate.
If a spider isn’t obvious, look for them in the garage, the shed, the basement or any similar protective environment. Garden spiders sometimes sit it the middle of a web or just on the edge. A gentle touch of the web and they will appear.
One-session treatments for such phobias are easy and effective and with the right support you can do this at home. It’s important that your helper is fearless around spiders, but as spider phobia is quite common you may have to ask a few people. If you’d prefer a less hit-and-miss approach turn to a psychologist as most regularly work with phobias.
For this to work you must commit to the session and stick with it until you feel your fear has completely vanished or reduced significantly. A ‘session’ therefore, takes as long as it takes, until this is achieved.
What follows is an illustration of a procedure known as exposure, or exposure therapy. It can be adapted to your personal circumstances and living conditions. In this example you’ll need the help of a person who is not spider phobic. That is, they remain quite calm in the presence of spiders and are not afraid of touching them. You must agree to watch your helper at all times and not look away or close your eyes. You’ll also need a large plastic bowl, a small glass and a postcard or piece of paper.
The first step is for the helper to catch a small spider and place it in the bowl. If you’ve ever seen a spider in the sink or bath you’ll know it can’t get out because the sides are too slippery. The plastic bowl serves the same purpose but the helper could always double-check to ensure it is big enough to prevent the spider escaping.
You now have to approach the bowl and look inside. You can approach and walk away as often as you like but ultimately you must be prepared to stand still and look at the spider in the bowl. Stand near to your helper, who should encourage and support you. Remain looking into the bowl at the spider until your discomfort level decreases. Your helper should be able to move away at this point.
There is a common belief that, if touched, a spider will run up the finger and arm and get into clothing. In fact spiders run away when touched and your helper should demonstrate this by touching the spider.
Many people find spider movements more distressing than their appearance. If this is your issue the helper should now put a finger into the bowl and touch the spider until it moves. They should do this a few times until your fear subsides. You can control the situation by telling your helper when and how often to touch the spider. If you do it too often the poor creature will tire, so keep that in mind.
What comes next is up to you. Many people are happy simply to get the spider out of the house. If this is your main goal you should watch the helper place the glass over the spider and then slide the card or paper underneath in order to form a lid.
Don’t remove the spider from the house yet - there’s more to do
The spider is then safely contained and the glass can be removed from the bowl. You could use the opportunity to study the spider through the glass. Again, the more exposure you have the more likely it is that your anxiety will reduce.
The helper should return the spider to the bowl. Now it’s your turn. If you feel sufficiently calm you could gently touch the spider and watch it move away. Be gentle, they may make you nervous, but they are delicate creatures.
If touching is a step too far, then place the glass over the spider and slide the card or paper beneath it. Once the spider is contained you can take it outside and release it. Just place the glass on the ground, slide out the paper, and lift the glass. If the spider clings to the glass, give the glass a tap, or leave it on its side, stand back and wait until the spider moves away.
The more you practice the more confident you will become and the more you will find your anxiety reducing. Some people reach the point where they are perfectly happy to collect spiders in their hands, but let’s cross that bridge if and when the time feels right.
Will it Work?
There’s no reason why it shouldn’t succeed. Success is relative to the individual, and while some may be content to allow a spider to run over their hand, others will be happy enough to feel their fear reduce to a point where they can calmly remove a spider using some form of trap.
I’ve had different levels of success. When I first started out the approach was to gently and systematically approach the issue over possibly several sessions. It involved teaching relaxation, showing images at a distance, progressing to video, then to a small plastic spider and finally the spider itself.
I was helped by the fact our technician maintained a veritable zoo of mice, rats, woodlice and of course spiders. This approach is still used but increasingly the one session approach is sufficient to calm, if not cure, most people’s worst fears.
Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.