Published in the May/June 2011 issue of Ohio State Alumni Magazine
by Richard Warren
photo by Chris Crook
For arachnophobes and ophidiophobes, just looking at photos of spiders and snakes can induce panic.
John Corby ’78 was thumbing through an encyclopedia as a child when he came across a photo of a giant South American spider. “It was a foot across, with legs bigger than my fingers,” he said. “I was sure it could jump on me, kill me, and eat me.”
Corby, who hosts a radio talk show on WTVN-610 in Columbus, said he also read about spiders that burrowed into the ground and constructed trapdoors of their silk. Could they ensnare small children?
Even as an adult, Corby is worried that spiders will attack him. He has candidly discussed his fear on the air, inviting listeners to call in and describe their own phobias. Still, he hasn’t sought treatment. “It’s not been all that debilitating,” he said.
For others, though, their phobias create havoc in their daily lives. Some people can’t leave home without wearing protective clothing against spiders. Others develop elaborate coping techniques, such as sending someone ahead of them into an unfamiliar environment to make sure the dreaded creature isn’t lurking there.
“It’s hard to draw a clear line between a clinical level of phobia and a strong fear,” said Michael Vasey, who directs the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at Ohio State. “With phobics, what we’re talking about is on the order of a panic attack. Their fear disrupts their ability to function in their everyday routines.”
The ‘ick’ factor
Where such fear comes from is still being debated. There may be an evolutionary component: those with a blithe disregard of what some spiders and snakes can do may quickly find themselves out of the gene pool. And there’s a difference between having a realistic fear of, say, lions and recognizing the dangers involved in everyday objects. People don’t develop phobias about electric outlets, for example.
There’s also evidence that a phobia can be learned. Chimpanzees watching videos of other chimps reacting in terror to a spider learned the same behavior. But when the tape was edited so the onscreen chimps appeared to be terrified by a flower, the watching chimps didn’t develop the same reaction. “There’s something special about spiders and snakes,” Vasey said.
Plus, there’s the “ick” factor. Spiders and snakes make many people’s skin crawl. “Disgust sensitivity comes into play,” Vasey said. “People may not say ‘I’m afraid,’ but they sure as heck don’t want to go near them or touch them.”
‘They’re more afraid of you . . .’
Vasey uses exposure therapy to desensitize phobics. The person is put in the same room with a spider inside a glass tank. The individual begins 12 steps away, then moves to five feet, then two feet, and gradually gets close enough to take the lid off the tank and poke the spider with a pencil. The process is repeated four times. The phobics are typically poised to run like mad should their worst fear come true and the spider tries to attack them.
What they learn is what most people understand: spiders aren’t aggressive. By the end of the therapy, Vasey has even seen phobics admiring the spider’s colors.
With many people, however, the fear returns when they come back for a second round of therapy. The results of studies Vasey recently did with fellow psychology professor Russell Fazio may hold promise for these folks. The trials combined exposure therapy with novel treatments.
Fazio studies the formation of deeply held attitudes and the automatic responses those attitudes create. He theorizes that a phobia is just another kind of attitude, but one that triggers a fear response.
Vasey and Fazio suspected that the individuals whose fear returned in the second therapy session had learned simply to control the fear, not to make a change in their attitude toward spiders that would ease their anxieties.
They created two procedures to encourage a positive association. In the first, the subjects were shown a stream of pictures on a computer screen. They included photos of spiders mixed with pleasant images such as ice cream, mountain scenes, and dolphins at play.
The other technique used a joystick that the phobics were told to push forward when they saw the word “toward.” Just prior to the “toward” command, a subliminal image of a spider flashed on the screen.
Those who received the supplemental treatments showed significantly less fear in their additional sessions.
Though the techniques might not work with other fears, Vasey and Fazio hope they’ve found another way to make life a little easier for spider phobics.