Refurbishing my brain, one neurosis at a time

Five years ago (to the day in fact!), I posted an entry on this blog including a photo of me holding a tarantula. At the time I remarked that I didn’t mind the tarantula but that you’d never get me to hold a large house spider.

Then this happened.

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On Sunday I attended a “Fight Your Spider Phobia” workshop at Edinburgh Zoo. I hadn’t been planning to, but when our mum gave Alex a ticket to it for his birthday, I decided I’d like to go too and asked for the same for my birthday.

My spider phobia has always been weirdly specific. I didn’t mind tarantulas, as I mentioned. I was also fine with small spiders, and other things that are very spider-like. (“How can you even need that workshop?” Laura asked me a couple of weeks beforehand as she watched me picking up huge harvestmen from the roof of the caravan awning and putting them outside). But big house spiders always freaked the hell out of me and made my skin crawl, no matter how often I tried to tell myself they couldn’t hurt me.

I wouldn’t say the phobia had a huge impact on my life, but it could get pretty annoying and inconvenient at times. I would avoid tasks like clearing out a dusty corner or an old shed in case there were spiders in there. Back in my days of living alone I would occasionally “lose” entire rooms of the flat to a spider I couldn’t bring myself to catch, sometimes for several days. And plus there was the general humiliation inherent in trying to think of myself as a rational person, yet being uncontrollably terrified of these miniscule, completely harmless creatures. I wasn’t sure if the workshop would help, but I knew it had to be worth a try.

The workshop took up a whole afternoon and there were several parts to it. First there was an introduction to phobias and how they can develop. Second was a talk about spiders from one of the zoo’s experts, including a lot of myth busting. For some reason, spiders seem to provoke a lot hysteria and bad press out of all proportion to the harm they actually cause. There are around 40,000 species of spider in the world and only 12 (none of which live in the UK) are capable of harming humans in any meaningful way. Even in countries like Australia where there are poisonous spiders, it’s very rare for anyone to actually die from a spider bite – bee stings kill far more people, yet there doesn’t seem to be this whole hysteria around bees that there is around spiders.

So far, so theoretical. While I did learn a few new interesting things (for example, those big “fang”-like things on the front of house spiders aren’t actually fangs at all – they’re the male spider’s sex organs!), I already knew that house spiders couldn’t hurt me, but that knowledge didn’t stop me from jumping out of my skin and running into the next room if I suddenly encountered a big one. The second half of the workshop was more geared towards addressing this automatic emotional reaction. This took the form of a very relaxing hypnosis session, then it was time for the part I was most excited, but also most nervous, about – facing our fears in the graded exposure session!

The exposure session started off very gently. The first spider we were exposed to was a furry cuddly toy one, followed by a slightly more realistic plastic toy. Most of the group were OK with this, though one or two did get a bit anxious. After we’d all had a turn of passing the toys around, followed by some preserved spiders in sealed boxes, we were ushered through to another room to meet the live spiders.

There were three of them: two fairly large British house spiders (Tegenaria Domestica is their scientific name, I believe) and one False Widow spider (so called because of its similar appearance to the infamous Black Widow, though the False Widow is harmless). An involuntary shudder went through me as I saw the first house spider sitting at the bottom of its tank – it was exactly the kind I was most scared of.

The staff and volunteers were amazing – very patient, but also encouraging. With their help, we all worked up towards challenging our fears more and more. We started by simply getting comfortable with looking at the spiders in their sealed tanks, and then with the tank lids off. Next, everyone had a go at catching a house spider with the aid of a clear plastic tumbler and a piece of card. I didn’t find that too bad, as I knew the spider couldn’t get out of the tank even if I fumbled and dropped the tumbler.

The next few steps were much more challenging. It took me a while to muster the courage to put my hand in the tank near the spider, even though I wasn’t touching it, but I managed to eventually, and that was the point at which I felt something shift in my brain as if I could feel my unconscious mind saying “Actually, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”. Next step after this was to lay my hand flat on the bottom of the tank while one of the staff gently persuaded the spider to walk across my fingers. I could hardly believe this was happening and I wasn’t freaking out!

The spider that helped me overcome my fear.

The spider that helped me overcome my fear.

Then suddenly, my fear had gone, almost completely. I wanted to actually hold the spider, and I knew I could cope with that now. The keeper lifted it out of the tank and let us each have a go at holding it in our hands. Strangely, it looked smaller to me now, as if I was finally seeing it in its true proportions rather than distorted by the phobia, and I was hit by the realisation of how vulnerable this creature actually was, and how there was nothing to fear from it, nothing at all. All my life I’d lived in terror of a house spider touching me, and now here I was standing calmly while a big one wandered across my bare hands, so lightly I could barely even feel it, as the keepers and other attendees around me applauded.

What amazed me most was that, as far as I could see, every person in the group got to the same stage – they all managed to hold the spider in their hands by the end of the session, even the ones who’d had a much more severe phobia than me to start with, who previously couldn’t even look at a toy spider without getting anxious. I was stunned by how effective the programme was – I would highly recommend anyone to give it a go, whatever their level of arachnophobia!

Of course it’s one thing to be able to handle spiders in a safe, controlled environment where you can go at your own pace. The real test will come the next time I unexpectedly encounter a spider in real life (and it could be a while before that happens – another fact I learned yesterday was that almost all house spiders die off in the autumn so there won’t be many big ones around now until next summer). Will the fear come flooding back at that point? Possibly, but I’m hoping it’ll also die down a lot more quickly and I’ll remember that there really is nothing to be afraid of. At the very least, my experience yesterday has got to have helped a bit.

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