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Spider Therapy: Journey from EEEK! to Eh

First a disclaimer to fellow arachnophobes – there are no embedded pictures and videos of spiders in the post – although there are a couple of links you might want to click, at your discretion, that might bring you in contact with pictures of spiders. 

Everybody who knows me, knows that one of the biggest parts of my identity has always been my  fear of spiders. Those who know me less have always found it hilarious that a 2 meter tall (6’6”) guy runs away from 0.5 cm spiders (0.2”), exits the room and demands removal of the interloper. More often than not, those same people would then victoriously present the said spider, alive and kicking, because it generates decent lulz. 

Those that know me better… still found it hilarious but did have a bit more understanding, often removing the spiders calmly without even letting me notice them. 

Accurate depiction of me encountering an arachnid specimen

 

There are a couple of situations from my life that illustrate quite well some of the common situations arachnophobes deal with on a day-to-day basis. All of those situations regularly produce salves of laughter, primarily due to misunderstanding of arachnophobia or specific phobias in general. 

Some 10 years ago, I was vacationing in the Adriatic with some friends. We were moving from village to village and trying to find accommodation on a student budget. In one village we’ve stayed at a friend’s apartment, and due to tight lodgings, 4 of us bundled up in one room in the apartment. Before turning in for the night, I’ve calmly notified my fellow roommates that there are 4 specimens of daddy longlegs in the room (part of the Phlocidae family — you know them, the crew that hangs around room corners, have more length in their legs than what’s good for them and like to chill and not move around too much). The room erupted with joy to bearing witness to such a ridiculous situation. None of them were aware of a single spider until that point. To me on the other hand, this was quite an accomplishment. I was able to sleep with 4 spiders in the room. In previous years even that was just too much, but with the Phlocidae being, more or less, a standard part of a Croatian household, I had to get to terms with it pretty soon in my life. 

This situation, however, perfectly demonstrates one of the characteristics of arachnophobes — hyperawareness to the presence of spiders. The first thing any arachnophobe does when entering a room is to, at least unconsciously, scan the room, especially corners, for spiders and choose the spot in the room that’s at the optimal point of distance to the spiders and closeness to the exit. To this, a usual retort from non-arachnophobes is — What’s the bloody problem? How often are you in contact with a spider, like once a twice a year? Yeah right, make that once or twice a month — is what any arachnophobe worth his salt is going to tell you. And that’s the thing – non-phobic people will not perceive the spiders because they are so insignificant, they’re no more than a blob on the wall (incidentally, a blob on the wall is usually a spider in an arachnophobe’s mind).

Before I revisit some of the other embarrassing situations in my life, let’s make a quick digression into the general perception of arachnophobia in the population. Arachnophobia, as any phobia, is an irrational fear of the phobia’s object. The reaction to being exposed to a spider is not really “I am afraid now”, rather being something along the lines of — I’m going to have a mild to severe anxiety attack now, ok? Tnx, bye. More often than not, after finding out that someone’s an arachnophobe, the “normal person” will reply with — Oh don’t be silly. The spider can’t hurt you, most of them aren’t even poisonous1! 

WE KNOW.

We are not uneducated, stupid troglodytes — we’re phobic. Moreover, whenever I was in the presence of spiders, I’d usually have my standard panic attack, all the while thinking “Why are you being this stupid? Why are you letting this insignificant little creature do this to you?”. The fact that I rationally know that it can’t hurt me has absolutely nothing to do with the reaction my subconsciousness wants me to have in that situation. To make matters worse, knowing that the whole thing is an irrational process of the primitive mind, at least for me, makes me even more depressed for not being able to take control of my own body. 

Hence, do not try to cure an arachnophobe by appealing to his reason. It will, 100%, not work. 

An actual scan of my brain

 

To move on back onto embarrassing myself — the strongest encounter I’ve yet had was after we’ve moved to London, October 2017. In England, there’s this fun type of spider called the “Giant house spider” (Eratigena atrica) and it really is a joy. They can grow up to 10 cm in length (4” – that’s with feet), and they’re around 7 cm on average in the fall when they’re at their biggest. What also happens in fall is that it’s mating season, so the guys run around like college frat boys looking for a mate and don’t really take heed of the private property laws of the large and, frankly obtrusive, homo sapiens.

One of them has, in a similar fashion, stumbled into our apartment, straight into my living room, while Iva was away on a business trip, and I didn’t have a close enough relationship to call somebody in London at half 10 in the evening, and beg them to save my life. 

My first reaction included a liberal amount of swearing, jumping on the couch and almost instantly the physiological reactions started — cold sweat, heart palpitations, focusing of the eyes — in short, the fight-or-flight reflex. What I’ll learn later on, is that this is the most normal reaction possible, that any homo sapiens would have when exposed to, say, an African lion strolling into his living room. It is a bit inappropriate with spiders though. 

 

This would not constitute a normal reaction

 

I’m not proud of how the story finishes, but long story short, I’ve managed to trap it in a sizeable fruit bowl, get my clothes on, take my work laptop and some spare clothes, run away from the apartment and take a room in a nearby hotel. In London. The next day, I’ve asked a colleague from work to come and help me get rid of the interloper.

This was the first time that my phobia hadn’t affected just my pride, but my financials as well. This made me consider what else has the phobia affected that has real life consequences from me. A couple of years back, I was in talks for a very good position in Australia – and the first thought I had was “Please let this fall through, have you seen the spiders there?”. My whole life I’ve had this  aversion for visiting Africa, Southeast Asia and South America – mainly due to spiders. Although I love nature, my nature vacationing was somewhat limited — due to spiders. 

All of these things, but the last experience mostly, have made me take action and change something about myself. I’ve started researching phobia therapy on the Internet – and was soon met with three main approaches being cited – Behavioural Cognitive Therapy, Hypnosis and Flooding. I’ve also encountered the London Zoo therapy programme called “The Friendly Spider Programme” — claiming it’ll rid me of the phobia in one day of sessions. I, being a stubborn sceptical excuse for a human, have immediately thought “Yeah, right.”.

However, some deeper investigation led me to read the reviews of the programme, and soon I got the feeling that their success rate is somewhere in the high eighties. 4 out of 5 people are going to get cured? I live in London, might as well try it — so I booked a slot for April 2018. 

The programme is led by Dr. John Clifford (a hypnotherapist) and Dave Clarke (team leader of the BUGS and butterflies exhibit in the London Zoo). What’s interesting is that this programme contains all 4 approaches — a bit of Behavioural Cognitive Therapy, Hypnotherapy, Flooding and, at least for me most important, group therapy. It’s surprisingly refreshing being in a room filled with people who are as phobic, or more phobic, than you. A nice and welcome change. 

Before starting the programme itself, we’re forced to hang around in the lobby and talk to each other — one of the worst parts of the whole experience — combining my anxiousness around spiders with my anxiousness around people I don’t know. I’m guessing this would make the whole thing less approachable to people who, in addition to having a spider phobia, also have a mild or strong social phobia. We weren’t forced to hang around though, and the staff was very welcoming, but I’ve decided to step outside and wait in the sun. There I’ve met Ade – also a quite tall dude, who’s leaving to travel off to Thailand in a month and is terrified of what the experience will bring. There’s also a very perky Brit who’s moving to Australia in 6 weeks and is mortified as to what she’ll experience there. There are also a couple of younglings who look very much afraid of the whole experience that will follow —and there are some people who can’t even hear the word spider! The programme staff is giving us a questionnaire to fill in — we have to state what our level of phobia is. I’m putting down a solid 9/10. I’ve never fainted and don’t have the problem with the word — so I’m guessing its pretty accurate (later on, I’ll see that even this was an overstatement). 

The first part of therapy is a Q&A about the things that scare us about spiders. We’re also discussing which situations we’re finding stressful, where we don’t like to encounter them and what our reactions are. John is explaining to us that the reactions are an autonomous reaction of our subconsciousness, which has, due to one of a myriad of reasons, started to associate spiders with a threat. This sort of a reaction is still okay when there’s a lion present, but with spiders it’s…exaggerated. He’s explaining to us that the purpose of the hypnosis we’ll undertake is to disassociate our fight-or-flight response from the stimulus of spiders.

After John’s introduction which, although interesting, didn’t provide much novelty as to my understanding of the problem — Dave follows up with a Q&A about anything we’ve ever wanted to know about spiders. He’s explaining to us that a good part of our fears are unfounded — they really don’t want to come near us, they have terrible eyesight, can’t jump worth their salt and most importantly — even globally, there’s really a slight number of species that pose a real threat to humans. Finally – Dave admits, himself, that he was arachnophobic, but that he’s used flooding therapy to get rid of it as soon as he’s decided to work with animals for his career. 

 

A depiction of my thought process during the lectures

 

After this slight introduction which contained some elements of Behavioural Cognitive Therapy – we’re being transferred to another room, where we’ll be exposed to group hypnosis. As ever, the hypnosis wasn’t terribly exciting — lie on the floor, relax, listen to my voice “You will be calm, relaxed and fully in control when in the presence of spiders”. John explains that most of us are going to claim, as most hypnotised people do, that we weren’t hypnotised. I, being a stubborn and sceptical excuse for a human being — had exactly that reaction. I don’t feel any different, and the next step is the worst of them all — hanging around spiders. 

We’re moving towards the B.U.G.S exhibit in the London Zoo. The first one we encounter is my nemesis — the giant house spider in an exhibit called “Spiders in the bathtub”. One of the facts we’ve learned from Dave is that spiders are trapped when they fall in the tub, as it’s too slippery for them to exit out of it. Looking at the little bugger, I have to admit I don’t feel better. I’m moving on to look at terrariums with bird eating spiders — and defeatism gets to me. I still feel uncomfortable. Moving on, and we’re coming up to the first obstacle that seems insurmountable — there’s a tropical garden with spiders hanging about in the open! Some of them are really large — with the biggest I’ve seen having a body of around 7 cm (3 inches), and legs to accompany it. I’m hesitant to go inside, but the ever growing group of people entering has me encouraged, so I manage to go in, and walk through it — albeit a bit tense in the shoulder area. We have observed, though, that this step is possibly easier when you’re not 2 m high, so they’re not exactly above your head. 

Defeatism still persists — but Ade is pointing out to me — “Dude, we’ve just walked through a jungle”. I have to say, this matter-of-fact approach is really helping and I do feel a lot better. We move back to the bathtub — and I know my eyes are deceiving me, but the little bugger looks… smaller? I’m rushing forward to the next step. 

In the next room — the volunteers hold house spiders in transparent boxes — and let us hold them if we want (the boxes, not the spiders). I’m taking one box, and putting it in my hand in a way that lets me look at the spider “in my palm” through the box. Doesn’t seem so bad — and I know that I would never hold a box before — “What if it opens and it gets on me!” is the thought that would haunt me. 

There’s a commotion near one of the tables and I walk over there. One of the zoo keepers has a big house spider female in a plastic tub and is poking it around. I’m looking at what he’s doing with other phobiacs, and it seems reasonably simple — put your hand closer to the tub. Now put your finger in the opposite corner. Now touch the spider. Everyone collectively loses their minds, as the participant slowly but steadily touches the hind leg of the spider, which immediately scuttles to the opposite corner, afraid for its life. The final step — he’s asking her to put her hand to the bottom of the tub, and he’ll prod the spider to walk over her hand. I’m not exaggerating when I say that everybody stopped breathing and looked in suspense at the sight in front of us — and the spider walking over her hand. 

In the next half hour, I’ve touched a spider, let it walk over my hand and calmly captured the same specimen that was in my home a couple months back. 

None of that could measure up to conquering Everest. In the picture contained in the link below, you can see how that went (WARNING, the picture contains a SPIDER – but more importantly, an awkward member of the homo sapiens species with a really smug look about himself). 

PHOTO

Yes, I’ve concluded the whole-day therapy by holding the cute Mexican bird eating spider Katie in my hand. After 29 years of living with a debilitating phobia that controlled every aspect of my life, I’ve managed to hold a tarantula2 in my hand. 

Of course, as soon as it moved in the slightest – I’ve almost dropped her and incurred the wrath of Dave and the other staff (for which I still can’t apologise enough!), but I’m going to have to note this experience in the plus column, still. 

I’m writing all of this still under the impression of the whole ordeal – I don’t know what had the biggest effect — but as I’ve said, the encouragement and camaraderie we shared with the rest of the phobiacs there — is my best bet as to what tipped me over. I also don’t know how long this will last and will I regress into my former state — but I have to think that the fact I’ve managed to hold a spider without panicking senselessly is something that’s going to help me in the future. 

If not readily apparent — I really do wholeheartedly recommend the London Zoo Friendly Spider Programme to everyone in the same state of brain glitches I’ve had. It really does help. Out of everyone who’s attended, only one of the two younglings couldn’t bear himself face the spiders in the end, while everybody else managed to hold Katie. That alone, for me, is as good as a recommendation as you can get. 

Footnotes

  1. The word you’re looking for here, is venomous https://futurism.com/what-is-the-difference-between-venom-poison-and-toxins/
  2. As Dave will point out, they’re not really tarantulas. Apparently, due to their large size, bird eaters have been called tarantulas in English, although the original tarantula is actually a spider called the wolf spider – that exists in Southern Europe – particularly  in the region of Taranta, Italy. Hence the name. In any case, calling them bird spiders is much more accurate, and is in fact how they are called in most other languages.

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