Fear of Spiders

How common is Arachnophobia?

Research suggests that at any given time, roughly 3.5% of the population will meet the criteria for fear of spiders or Arachnophobia (Frederickson et al, 1996).

Assessing Spider Phobia

Do you think you may be suffering from a phobia of spiders? The fear of spiders questionnaire (FSQ) below can help you identify if the fear you experience around spiders would be classified as a phobia. 

Read each statement on the list below and record to what extent you agree with it, on a scale from 0 (totally disagree) to 7 (totally agree).

1. If I came across a spider now, I would get help from someone else to remove it
2. Currently, I am sometimes on the lookout for spiders
3. If I saw a spider now, I would think it will harm me
4. I now think a lot about spiders
5. I would be somewhat afraid to enter a room now where I have seen a spider before
6. I now would do anything to try and avoid a spider
7. Currently, I sometimes think about getting bit by a spider
8. If I encountered a spider now, I wouldn’t be able to effectively deal with it
9. If I encountered a spider now, it would take a long time to get it out of my mind
10. If I came across a spider now, I would leave the room
11. If I saw a spider now, I would think it will try and jump on me
12. If I saw a spider now, I would ask someone else to kill it
13. If I encountered a spider now, I would have mental images of it trying to get me
14. If I saw a spider now, I would be afraid of it
15. If I saw a spider now, I would feel very panicky
16. Spiders are one of my worst fears
17. I would feel very nervous if I saw a spider now
18. If I saw a spider now, I would probably break out in a sweat and my heart would beat very fast

Add up your scores for each statement. Patients with spider phobia often score 80 or higher. Please note this is not a hard and fast diagnosis, but more of a general guide.

Beliefs about Spiders

People with a fear of spiders often have highly developed beliefs about spiders. These beliefs often highly exaggerate the threat posed by a spider, and the spider’s intent to inflict harm. Patients often report beliefs such as thinking that if they touch a spider it would immediately jump up on them, or bite them and afflict them with deadly poison.

Because of these beliefs, patients are often very reluctant to engage in exposure exercises – they genuinely see spiders as being a threat to their lives. Patients often also fear the fact that they will become afraid in the presence of the spider – they anticipate that panicking near the spider may cause them to be unable to protect themselves and lead to more chance of harm.

Panic-related beliefs are very common in spider phobics. Patients may believe that their fear would lead to a heart attack, to insanity, or to freezing and being unable to think or act. These beliefs strongly resemble those found in patients with panic attacks. Patients also hold the belief that any contact with a spider will worsen their fears – a belief that runs contrary to the exposure treatment that would actually reduce their fear. This belief plays a role in the avoidance spider phobics experience and may reduce willingness to take part in exposure treatment.

Other themes in the beliefs of those with spider phobia centre around the idea of a spider as a hunter or predator, and the patient themselves as prey or a target, and around the idea of spiders as unpredictable and uncontrollable. Some patients also hold the belief that coming into contact with one spider may result in contact with more.


Exposure to the feared stimulus is the most effective form of treatment for all phobias, including phobia of spiders. Exposure can take place “in vivo”, that is using real spiders, or by having the patient imagine a confrontation with a spider (Garcia-Palacios et al, 2002).

Virtual Exposure

As with other kinds of phobia, exposure to spiders can be done virtually – using either virtual reality or images and videos of spiders on a computer screen. Virtual (or in virtuo) exposure is often preferable to phobia patients, since it does not involve actual physical proximity to the feared stimulus. When offered the choice, around 81% of spider phobics preferred in virtuo exposure to real, in vivo exposure to a live spider (Bouchard et al, 2006). Given that only around 15 to 20% of spider phobics actually come forward for treatment, this suggests that many people living with a phobia of spiders may be more willing to seek help if they knew in virtuo treatment was an option. 

Research shows that virtual exposure can be highly effective in treating phobia of spiders. A study by Garcia-Palacios et al (2002) asked patients to take part in four, one-hour virtual exposure sessions and found that 83% participants experienced a significant reduction in their symptoms. There were no dropouts from this study, highlighting that in virtuo exposure is a treatment which patients are readily willing to engage with.


As well as exposure, treatment for spider phobia also involves modelling the therapist – observing how they act and learning the correct ways to handle, control and predict the actions of the spider. In doing so, patients learn, for example, that spiders are not primed to attack humans at all times, cannot jump incredible distances and are in fact much slower to move than humans. They also get to learn the safe and correct way of handling spiders. This process greatly reduces the sense of unpredictability around spiders, and teaches patients that being in the presence of a spider does not necessarily have to lead to an experience of intense panic.

Treatment for Severe Arachnophobia

Unwillingness to engage in exposure remains a key reason many people continue to suffer from phobia of spiders. For individuals with a highly severe fear of spiders, even virtual or imaginary exposure may be too much to consider. For such people, a form of treatment called Spiderless Arachnophobia Therapy (SLAT) (Granado et al, 2007) has been developed. SLAT does not involve exposure to spiders in any form, and instead works on the idea that threats do not need to be perceived consciously in order to trigger a response. 

In this form of treatment patients are exposed to images which may resemble certain aspects of a spider – a carousel in which the seats hang like flies in a web, a tripod with articulated, spider-like legs, and so on. Exposure to these images unconsciously brings to mind the idea of a spider, but not in a way that patients find overtly threatening. SLAT treatment appears highly effective, with the initial study showing that 91.7% of patients who took part were classified as non-phobic six months later.

Brain Changes with Therapy

Man reading about spiders phobia on PC

Studies show that exposure treatment can affect patients with Arachnophobia on a neural level. Patients who have successfully undergone exposure therapy show a reduced level of activity in brain areas linked to negative stimulation (particularly an area called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex) and increased activity in areas linked to positive reinforcement (such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex) (Schienle et al. 2009). This effect was true even 6 months after the treatment had been completed, suggesting that exposure has long-lasting effects in creating new brain associations and reducing fear of spiders.

Disgust in Fear of Spiders

While feelings of fear and perceived danger are clearly at the heart of Arachnophobia, research suggests that the emotion of disgust also plays a part (Watts, 1986). Similar to anxiety, feelings of disgust also create a strong desire to avoid the source of the disgust. Feelings of disgust may be felt in combination with fear in patients with spider phobia, and both may lead to a desire to avoid the phobic stimulus. When presented with photos of spiders, phobia patients are just as likely to respond with statements such as “this is disgusting” as they were with statements indicating they felt threatened or in danger (Tolin et al, 1997). 

Research shows, for example, that patients with spider phobia would often be unwilling to go near a cage that had previously held a tarantula – even if there was no tarantula present anymore – due to feeling that the cage was disgusting and “contaminated” (Woody et al, 2005). In this study, disgust was found to be a stronger motivator for avoiding spiders than anxiety. In another study, participants were invited to eat a cookie which a spider had walked across. 71% of non-phobic individuals eventually ate the cookie, but only 25% of patients with phobias were ever willing to do so (Mulkens et al, 1996). Similarly, de Jong and Muris (2002) found that 10 to 14 year old spider phobic girls were much less willing to eat their favourite chocolate bars if they thought a spider had come into contact with it, even if the wrapper was still on. These reactions cannot be due to fear, since all chance of contact with the spider has passed. Instead, there is a feeling of disgust and a belief that the cookies/chocolate have been contaminated which is causing the participants to avoid contact with them. 

Fear and disgust are both present in many spider phobia cases, but may operate and change in intensity independently and at different rates. Disgust is normally found to reduce during exposure, but at a slower rate than anxiety.


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