Arachnophobia: how to beat your spider fears

By Carol Booth 1 July 2009
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When dealing with spiders, education is far more effective than a thick-soled shoe

IT WAS PALM-SIZED, sprawl-legged and hairy, and it scuttled over the pillow toward Robert Raven’s face. “I panicked and charged out of the tent,” says the Queensland Museum’s spider curator. “And then I stood outside in a cold sweat.”

Arachnophobia, which is defined as a fear of spiders that’s out of proportion to their threat, is one of our most common phobias. A survey undertaken by a UK insurance company in 2007 found that 650,000 people blamed their car crashes on the fear of, or distraction by, an invertebrate – the most common of which were spiders. Some people are so scared they recoil from the mere mention of spiders. Many have undoubtedly already flipped this page to avoid the photographs.

Robert, however, is not your average spider scaredy-cat. He’s a world authority on funnel-webs, trapdoors and tarantulas, and that night he’d just spent hours collecting spiders – by hand – for the museum. Not only that, but the spider on his pillow was a harmless huntsman, whose bite would have hurt only a little.

Gripped by a fear of spiders

Robert ascribes his momentary panic to an instinctive response to the unexpected movement and an old, buried fear that escapes occasionally when his guard is down. “I was terrified of spiders as a child,” he says, explaining that his father used to tell him tales of redback spiders dropping down his shirt as he explored old mine shafts with nothing but a flaming newspaper to provide light.

The nature of phobias is poorly understood, and there’s debate among academia about whether specific fears are innate or learned. University of Queensland fear researcher and former arachnophobe Helena Purkis believes our subconscious responses to spiders are not automatically negative.

“Fear is highly contagious,” she says. “Children can absorb it via the behaviours of others or by having a scary exper-ience. We often have no memory of its origins.” Fear of spiders is often coupled with disgust – another learned response – of hirsuteness, creepiness or perceived dirtiness. “And the alien-ness of spiders may also be a factor,” Helena says.

If fear of spiders is learned, then it follows that the fear can be unlearned – a theory that has formed the basis of biologist Warrick Angus’s nine-year relationship with them. Once an arachnophobe himself, Warrick initially set about studying spiders to learn how to better avoid them – but he ended up loving them instead.

“I came to realise there were no other animals in the world so amazing – the way they hunt and live and make webs,” he says.

He’s since become one of their most passionate advocates – establishing the spider exhibition at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo and running a regular arachnophobia course, called “Fearless at Taronga”, to help free others from their terror. Since 2005, more than 200 people have been through the course, with around 98 per cent overcoming their phobia enough to hold a spider, or at least safely catch one in a container.

Sydneysider Dana Cordell signed up for the course because she was embarrassed by her fear of huntsman spiders. “I knew logically they wouldn’t harm me, but I couldn’t enter rooms where I’d seen one,” she says. “I was convinced I attracted them, because there always seemed to be one near me.”

By the end of the four-hour course, Dana was able to cradle a huntsman in her bare hand for several minutes. She loved the sensation. “It was such a delicate, sensitive, soft little creature,” she says. “Like a tiny, afraid mouse in my hands.”

Rebecca Unmack travelled to Sydney from Ballarat, Victoria, to take part in the course because she didn’t want her young daughters to carry on the family tradition of freaking out over arachnids. “I would spend summer scanning the house for them,” she says. “Rubber spiders, dead spiders, even images on TV would turn me into a fruitloop.”

There were lots of tears on the way for Rebecca but she too managed what she’d previously believed impossible. “There’s a photo of me with a big grin holding Rosie the tarantula,” she says.

Dana and Rebecca say that information was a vital weapon against their phobias. As Warrick Angus puts it: “knowing the truth about spiders helps free you from fear”. Are you terrified of dying from a spider bite?

No-one’s been killed by a spider since the 1980s. Most spiders aren’t venomous, and if you’re bitten by one of those that are, with proper treatment the bite won’t be fatal. Do you find their hirsuteness repulsive?

Spiders have fascinating uses for their hairs – some are sensory organs for monitoring temperature and humidity, while others enable the spider to cling to smooth surfaces.

Overcoming arachnophobia is good for spiders as well as people. Not as many will be stamped or sprayed to death, and they can live in happy harmony with people in backyards and the bush. Ultimately, quashing spider myths is much more satisfying than squashing spiders. 

Spider movement

Many are terrified by the rapid, unpredictable scuttling of spiders or the belief that they can pounce. Huntsman spiders are particularly erratic, but they aren’t aggressive. They owe their agility to their tarsi, or “feet”, which are longer than most spiders’. Hairy pads on these tarsi enable them to travel across smooth surfaces. When disturbed, they may jump off walls, but they generally prefer to remain grounded.

Spider fangs

Fangs are fearsome but fascinating. Spiders use them to pierce the skin of prey and inject venom, which can include enzymes that liquefy flesh, providing the spider with an easy feast. Humans take comfort: most spider fangs are too small to penetrate our skin. Mygalomorphs, such as funnel-webs, bird spiders and tarantulas, have the biggest fangs.

Spider hair

People often find hirsute spiders repulsive, but hairs perform important functions, such as  detecting vibrations and monitoring temperature and humidity. The hairs on the back of a mother wolf spider are knobbed, so her spiderlings have something to cling to as they ride on her back.

Spider venom

Only two spider species, the redback and the Sydney funnel-web, have killed humans in Australia. Fourteen deaths from redback bites have been recorded; since antivenom was introduced in 1956 there’s been only one suspected death, from a bite left untreated. Of an estimated 5000–10,000 redback bites a year, only about 200 require antivenom. One long-lived myth is that a white-tailed spider bite causes flesh to rot. Studies have shown that ulceration occurs only in exceptional circumstances. More common symptoms include headache, vomiting, diarrhoea and muscular pains.

Once bitten: first-aid treatment of spider bites

For funnel-web or mouse-spider bites, keep the patient calm and limit movement. Apply a broad bandage to the bite area and just below it, then bandage firmly up the length of the limb towards the heart.

Apply a wooden splint to immobilise the limb. Do not apply a bandage for redback spider bites as this will worsen the pain. For redback, mouse and funnel-web spider bites, seek medical attention urgently.

For other bites, apply a cold pack if the bite is painful. In most cases, no other first aid is necessary but seek medical help if symptoms develop or persist.

Why don’t spiders stick to their webs?

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2008