Anxiety Society: Jenny’s Fear of Spiders and Fear of Therapy
Last week, we met Jenny Whalen. She’s afraid of spiders — really afraid of spiders, actually. In the first part of our interview, she told us the story about how she once jumped out of the driver’s seat of her car while driving through a construction zone…all because she’d spotted a spider crawling around inside her vehicle.
S: Have you ever tried therapy or any exposure techniques to lessen your fear? If so, what worked and what didn’t?
J: In high school, I took an elective course in Psychology. There was a spider in the room one day, and my reaction to it caused the teacher to segue into a unit on phobias and to use me as a guinea pig.
We tried a gradual exposure technique and over several weeks, the idea was that I would look at a dead spider in a jar, work up to holding the jar, and eventually take the spider out of the jar, then hold the spider itself.
If I made it to that point, we’d do the same steps with a live spider. I was never able to get past the dead spider being outside the jar.
S: Have you ever gone to a professional therapist?
I’ve never done actual therapy for it, mainly because the teacher told us about a “flooding” technique and I am terrified of the idea that someone would put spiders on me to try to force me to overcome the fear. Since high school, I’ve tried to apply the techniques with some success.
I can now kill a very small spider with a vacuum, which is something I wouldn’t have even considered just a few years ago, and if I see a spider that’s not moving and it’s far enough away, I calm down very quickly and I’m able to rationalize that it won’t hurt me. Until it moves. Then that’s all out the window.
S: Do you consider your fear of spiders to be an actual phobia? I mean, I know no one’s ever formally diagnosed you — but if you saw a therapist tomorrow, do you think they’d classify your fear as pathological? Would you ever considering trying therapy if the therapist promised not to use “flooding” techniques, or is the thought of any kind of therapy too daunting?
J: I did a lot of reading about phobias after that psychology class because I was interested in finding out more that might help me overcome it. Based on what I learned, I definitely think it’s a true phobia and that a therapist would agree with that. “Daunting” is a very good word for my feelings on therapy. It would take a lot of convincing to get me to even enter a therapist’s office, and even then, I don’t know that I’d be willing to participate in any kind of therapy that involved living spiders in any capacity.
S: Ew! That surprises me. Is it because they’re big, furry, or both?
J: I think it’s a combination of those two things, and that they don’t move like other spiders do. I’ll never have a Tarantula drop down from a ceiling in front of me, and there will probably never be one in my shower or hiding in my shoes. Plus, people keep them as pets, so I just don’t really think of them as spiders.
S: Does the word “spider” alone affect you in some way? What happens to your body, physiologically, when you read that word? What happens in your mind?
J: The word itself doesn’t affect me quite the same way, but if I overhear the word being said, I immediately go on high alert and hold my breath for a moment, expecting that there’s one near me. I’ll usually freeze and tense up for a moment and my heart will race a little until I know there’s not a spider present. Just hearing it normally in conversation isn’t bothersome, but if I think about it at all, I start picturing some particularly creepy specimens and work myself into a state of panic that generals ends with me searching the entire room to make sure it’s spider-free.
S: Should I use an image of a spider on my blog when I post this interview? Would it bother you? Would it make a difference if I used a photograph versus, say, a child’s drawing of a spider?
J: I do not like photos of spiders at all, but it’s not quite as bad as seeing a real one. A child’s drawing or a cartoon of any kind is fine by me, though! I actually sometimes include spiders in some of my artwork. As long as it’s clearly fake, no issues here!
Jenny, enjoy the 7-legged spider drawing!
Do you have an intense fear of spiders or other bugs? Everyone deals with fears differently — so, how do you cope with that fear? Let me (and Jenny!) know in the comments below.
Beretsky, S. (2012). Anxiety Society: Jenny’s Fear of Spiders and Fear of Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 10, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/panic/2012/08/anxiety-society-jennys-fear-of-spiders-and-fear-of-therapy/