What is arachnophobia? If you haven’t heard of this specific phobia, it’s an intense, irrational fear of spiders. Though many people find spiders creepy, most of us can deal with them without experiencing a level of fear that negatively impacts our lives. However, for those who have arachnophobia, things are different. Seeing or even thinking about a spider can cause an overwhelming emotional response, making them feel like they’re in imminent danger.

Here, we’re defining arachnophobia, listing its causes and symptoms, discussing how to get a diagnosis, and exploring available treatment options for this specific phobia.

Symptoms of Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia, also called “spider phobia,” can cause significant distress and detract from your quality of life. Thinking about or encountering a deadly spider can cause instantaneous feelings of anxiety. The physical symptoms of arachnophobia can include:

  • Crying
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trembling and shaking
  • Short, quick breathing
  • Nausea and upset stomach
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness

Arachnophobia can also cause you to avoid social interaction, experience difficulty thinking and concentrating, and avoid places you fear may have spiders. Many people with arachnophobia imagine spiders are larger than they are, and they feel like they’re always bound to encounter a spider.

Causes of Arachnophobia

Like other specific phobias, spider phobia falls within a category of anxiety disorders, which may or may not be genetic. 

Fear of spiders can also be caused by your environment. If you were raised by someone who showed an intense fear of spiders, you might be more inclined to experience the same fear. Of course, it’s also possible that getting a spider bite in the past can result in a heightened fear of being bitten again. Most commonly, spider phobia will begin to appear during childhood, but it can also last into or develop after adulthood. 

“Arachnophobia can be caused by hereditary factors, traumatic experiences, environmental factors, or cultural influences. If there are negative thoughts and feelings regarding spiders, that will usually cause a stress-induced response to coming in contact with one.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, MA, MSc, LMHC

How is Arachnophobia Diagnosed?

Remember that many people are uneasy about or around spiders, but they’re not arachnophobic. So what do mental health professionals look for when diagnosing spider phobia? Specific phobias are typically diagnosed according to standards outlined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

A psychologist, psychiatrist, or other mental health professional will use the criteria outlined in the DSM-5 to develop an understanding of your symptoms and determine if you are dealing with arachnophobia.

In general, an arachnophobia diagnosis implies that your symptoms have been present for at least 6 months, and they’re causing a significant disruption to your well-being. You’ll typically answer questions about the intensity, frequency, and duration of your symptoms. Your medical history may also be reviewed.

It’s estimated that about 19% of people worldwide have specific phobias. Fear of animals (including spiders) and fear of heights are the two most prevalent phobias. But arachnophobia is one of the most common phobias psychologists diagnose.

Fear of spiders vs. fear of spider webs

Fear of spider webs falls under the same umbrella as fear of spiders. Each fear is specific — you may fear spiders only, spider webs, or both spiders and their webs.

Treatment for Arachnophobia

Specific phobias like arachnophobia can be more treatable than complex phobias. It’s also possible that the intensity of the fear you feel about spiders lessens as you get older.

Successful treatment of specific phobias typically involves therapy or counseling. Part of your therapy will likely focus on teaching you to breathe, relax, compose your thoughts, and take a more realistic look at the danger level a typical spider actually represents.

In some cases, medication can be helpful, but long-term, the most effective treatment will include therapy (even if it’s combined short-term with medication). Some pharmaceuticals used for short-term treatment of arachnophobia symptoms might include:

  • Natural anti-anxiety supplements
  • Antidepressants
  • Beta-blockers
  • Tranquilizers
  • Sedatives

The psychotherapy known as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most common therapy technique used to deal with phobias in general, and this includes arachnophobia as well. 

“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is usually the best approach to coping with a fear or phobia. The techniques allow for making new connections between the thoughts and fears. The concept of systematic desensitization helps with decreasing the level of distress that an individual has when faced with what they fear.”

Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar, MA, MSc, LMHC

Indirect exposure therapy is another technique that can be quite effective in treating spider phobia. You might try watching documentaries about arachnids to better understand them, for example. This may help reduce some of the anxiety symptoms you experience when you see or think about spiders in the future.

Other ideas could include watching movies about unrealistic giant killer spiders. This can help some people see that real spiders are not nearly as dangerous. Some research has even suggested that watching the Spiderman movies can be successful in managing arachnophobia. The concept behind exposure therapy is to familiarize yourself with what you fear in a controlled, safe manner and environment. As your tolerance builds and your fear subsides, you can increase the level of exposure until you’re able to manage your fear and not let it control or interfere in your life. 

How to Cope with Arachnophobia 

Certain lifestyle changes have been shown to benefit some people with arachnophobia or other specific or complex phobias.

In addition to therapy and possibly medication, consider any of the following, all of which can potentially help you overcome your fear of spiders: 

  • Discussing your specific phobia with trusted loved ones
  • Exploring meditation and relaxation exercises 
  • Switching to a healthier diet
  • Getting more exercise
  • Enhancing your sleep

All these techniques can help your body and brain to function more optimally, possibly decreasing your symptom expression. Anxiousness can also be heightened by stimulating beverages like coffee, black tea, and energy drinks. You might want to limit your intake to help alleviate your anxiety and fear symptoms.

Deep intentional breathing exercises (pranayama) can be very helpful for managing anxiety and fear. Slowly taking in and exhaling 8 – 10 deep belly breaths can very quickly change your brain waves from sympathetic to parasympathetic, meaning you feel more relaxed and controlled.

If you feel comfortable enough doing so, you can consider using either CBT or exposure therapy with a licensed therapist who specializes in anxiety. Gradually exposing yourself to spiders and training your mind to accept them can help. Outside of the therapy setting, you could even do things like go to a pet store and look at a tarantula through the glass. Practice mindful breathing while doing so. Repetition can retrain your brain to overcome your irrational fear.

Severe arachnophobia is real, and it can cause overwhelming fear, apprehension, and anxiety. Like other phobias, arachnophobia can often result from a past negative experience. Fortunately, you can learn various methods to counteract your fear, relax your mind, and face the situation more effectively. Working with a therapist is the fastest and most effective road to recovery.

It’s very important that you don’t go into it thinking therapy will be a quick fix. Sometimes it can take years of diligent counseling and effort to overcome irrational fears. The bottom line is this: don’t expect to be “cured” of arachnophobia overnight.

If arachnophobia or other irrational fears are consuming you and detracting from your quality of life, consider reaching out to a mental health professional right away. Talkspace offers online therapy options that can help you work through your phobia. The sooner you begin the process of retraining and healing, the sooner your life can return to normal. You can overcome your fear of spiders.