A Date with "Spidey" Reduces Loathing for Little Buggers, Gentles the Trembling Heart

Release Date: September 13, 2002 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In "Eight-Legged Freaks," the most recent anti-spider movie, exposure to toxic waste causes hundreds of little spiders to mutate overnight to the size of SUVs. And they're hungry -- real hungry.

It doesn't take a hairy man-eater to terrify some people, however. The thought of even an itsy-bitsy in the waterspout can send them into a full-blown panic attack.

Juliana Read, a doctoral candidate in the University at Buffalo's clinical psychology program, was once one of the unfortunate -- a genuine arachnophobe, scared to death of those eight hairy legs.

Today she conducts research to determine whether an hour of treatment can produce clinically significant reductions in anxiety among those afraid of spiders.

The study is the bulk of her dissertation work, which she is completing under the supervision of Larry Hawk, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of psychology.

The research uses "habituation," a process that involves a controlled, gradual exposure to the spider (or any feared stimulus). Habituation is particularly effective in reducing specific fears, says Hawk, and is used extensively in many different clinical and research settings.

Read, who used principles of exposure to reduce her own fear, not only is comfortable administering exposure exercises to her study participants, she now feels at ease with the arachnids. She personally discovered that meeting the beast

She has shipments of spiders for her studies delivered to her home where she cares for them almost as if they were pets. She feeds them tiny crickets, and makes sure they always have plenty of water. She even knows when they're hungry, because they run faster.

Arachnophobia is relatively common, Read says. Survey data suggest that about five percent of Americans experience a phobia of spiders or other small animals, such as snakes and mice, at some point in their lives.

"Many people just go out of their way to avoid spiders," she explains. "Some simply kill them or find someone to kill spiders for them. Other people, however, virtually are paralyzed with fear at the very thought of a spider."

To reduce arachnophobic responses, Read first encourages her subjects to tell her what frightens them about the little guys and has them try to ascertain how these fears developed. She then slowly introduces real spiders into the environment, asking her subjects to observe arachnids of increasing size in a closed, clear plastic container as she eases their anxiety with a few critter-facts.

"Many people are afraid that spiders will bite them," Read says, "and although some can do that, lots of spiders have mouths that are too small to bite through our skin.

"Some people express anxiety about poisonous spiders," she says, "but only two species of spiders in the U.S. pose a lethal threat to humans -- the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse. Most people are surprised to learn that the vast majority of spiders are harmless."

Perhaps most important, Read gently educates her nervous subjects about the fact that spiders in general are not interested in humans. In fact, they run away when they know they're nearby. She demonstrates this by placing a spider in an enclosed space and repeatedly moving her finger toward it. Every time she does so, the spider races to the other side of the container, looking as hysterical as the most avid arachnophobe.

"It helps people to know how useful spiders are, too," Read says. "They are an important part of our ecosystem and the overall environment. They also eat pests that are harmful to our crops and farms, as well as flies, mosquitoes and carpenter ants."

After the fact session, Read asks her subjects to look closely at live spiders of various sizes, beginning with a very small one, and to describe their physical characteristics, thus "humanizing" the insects.

She selects pint-sized, rather delicate and attractive Wolf Spiders for this exercise. Although it's quite enough to repel and disgust many arachnophobes, by warming up to the specific, study subjects presumably warm up to the general category.

By the time she brings out the Wolf, Read says her subjects, if not fascinated, are far less horrified than they were earlier. On the other hand, at this point, the spider still is locked up.

Next, she teaches participants how to catch a spider with a glass and a piece of paper, so they can remove a spider from the home and release it outdoors. Then, if the person is able and willing, Read and the participant will touch the spider, and perhaps even let it walk on their hands. Not all participants make it to this point.

"Some do and some don't.," she says, "but those who proceed further in the exposure exercises (e.g. touching the spider) typically enjoy greater treatment gains." Follow-up tests

typically find that subjects' spider-anxiety diminishes considerably after their "date" with Read's research assistants.

Before and after the brief treatment sessions, Read measures the degree of spider fear with questionnaires answered by subjects and by testing physiological responses to pictures of spiders and other unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant objects.

The causes of phobias often are not known, according to Read, but they may begin with a traumatic event in which a person is severely frightened by a particular object.

Scientists theorize that arachnophobia can be triggered by traumatic experiences, such as a bad spider bite, seeing others react strongly to spiders in real life or in the media or even by being told inaccurate stories about how horrible spiders are.

Read says treatment is worth the time and trouble, particularly if it helps alleviate symptoms that are quite disabling.

"For instance, some people think about spiders all the time," she says, "and are constantly on the lookout for them."

This level of anxiety can be severe enough to produce irrational thoughts, she says. Some otherwise normal people, she adds, believe that spiders read their minds or target them because of their fear. They may think the spiders are deliberately hiding so they can pounce on them and bite them or believe spiders have snuck into their beds to wait for them.

Read says physiological responses to objects of fear may include heavy perspiration, feeling hot, anxiety, accelerated heartbeat, difficulty breathing, trembling and an urge to escape. She says even if an affected individual doesn't encounter a spider very often, anticipatory fear of the object can become overwhelming.

These responses can be embarrassing, inconvenient and have a serious negative effect on people's lives, she notes.

When their controlled, up-close encounter with spiders is over, Read sends her subjects away with pamphlets that illustrate and describe a spider's body parts and offer additional information on their lifestyles and habits, and serve to smooth further the worried brow.

She reminds her subjects that this brief treatment is only a beginning and that to prevent fear from returning, they need to remind themselves of the things they've learned and to further expose themselves to common, harmless spiders in their everyday lives.

Although not every spider is itsy-bitsy or lives in Charlotte's Web, process of meeting the beast makes the heart pump faster, then grow fonder.

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