Spider season is about to begin - this is why people are scared of them

Monday, 31st August 2020, 4:05 pm
Updated Monday, 31st August 2020, 4:39 pm
A fear of spiders could be the result of human evolution (Photo: Shutterstock)

In the UK, the beginning of September marks the start of ‘Spider Season’ - the period of time when spiders look to make their way indoors to mate as temperatures begin to cool. Spider season ends around the first week of October.

For many across the country, spider season is the worst time of year, with arachnophobia - the fear of spiders - being one of the UK’s most common phobias.

But why are so many people scared of spiders? This is everything you need to know.

Why are people afraid of spiders?

Professor Dr Marcel van den Hout from Utrecht University in The Netherlands describes fear of spiders as an “evolutionary hangover”.

Professor van den Hout says: “Our ancestors were less likely to kick the bucket prematurely if they quickly figured out that spiders (or snakes) could be dangerous and avoided them out of fear.

“This gave them a bigger ‘reproductive success’: they were more likely to produce offspring.”

However, if all the offspring came from those who feared spiders, the offspring also inherited the tendency to quickly be afraid of spiders.

“Our DNA does not differ much from the hunter-gatherer homo sapiens, which explains why we have this fear of spiders today,” the professor states.

Is a fear of spiders something we’re born with?

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and the Uppsala University in Sweden, have also tried to find out if a fear of spiders is something that we learn, or if it’s something that we’re born with.

The researchers chose to conduct the study on babies, since they would be the least likely to show fear.

The babies that took part in the study were shown a variety of images, with the researchers then analysing their responses.

In the study, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology, the authors explain that the infants responded with larger pupils when presented with images of snakes and spiders, in contrast to when they saw control images of flowers and fish.

This finding suggests that a fear of these creatures could be innate.

“These results speak to the existence of an evolved mechanism that prepares humans to acquire specific fears of ancestral threats,” the study explains.

How come some people are not afraid of spiders?

However, there are people around the world who aren’t scared of spiders, there are some that love spiders, and even keep them as pets - how is this possible if it’s something that we’re born with?

Well, not all studies conducted agree that a fear of spiders is innate.

A paper published in Current Directors in Psychosocial Science found that seven month old babies noticed images of snakes more quickly - but didn’t show signs of fear. This indicated children may not have an innate fear of these creatures, but can simply identify them more easily.

Lead researcher from the previous study, Stefanie Hoehl, says that social learning accounts for some of this fear.

Hoehl says that parental reinforcement also plays a big part in how much fear grows, so having a parent who is afraid of spiders can generate a fear of spiders in their children.

A fear of spiders could therefore stem from a variety of factors - an “evolutionary hangover” as described by Professor van den Hout, learned fear from family and friends or bad personal experiences.

How do I overcome a fear of spiders?

In 2013, Paul Siegel at the State University of New York and his colleague Richard Warren, published a study which helped participants lessen their fear of spiders.

In the study, it found that participants that were fearful of spiders had their fear reduced by brief exposure to images of spiders.

The study said: “Very brief exposure to images of spiders reduced the fearful group’s and not the non-fearful group’s experience of fear at the end of the behavioural avoidance test.”

Exposure to spiders, in a safe environment, could therefore help reduce the fear that people have towards them.

Healthline says: “A 2019 study on arachnophobia found that patients exposed to positive media interpretations of spiders (in this case, “Spider-Man” movies) decreased their fears.

“While Spider-Man won’t necessarily help you cure your arachnophobia, seeing spiders in such a positive context could be a start in the right direction.”

Healthline also states that specific phobias, such as the fear of spiders, can be potentially helped through a variety of treatments, such as counselling.

There is no medication that will cure arachnophobia, but there are some medications you can take if spiders cause you intense anxiety in your day to day life.

Healthline says that you should possibly consider seeing a professional to help you work through your spider phobia if it’s intensely impacting your life, such as preventing you from going outdoors, it prevents you from getting work done and impacts your social life.

“You may consider seeing a psychotherapist to help you address your spider phobias.

“One-on-one talk therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and group therapy are all possible counselling options for phobias,” Healthline says.

What’s the best way to keep spiders out of your house?

These are some tips and tricks to keep your house as spider-free as possible:

  • Keep your house clean and airy with regular vacuuming and dusting
  • Keep your house filled with natural light and try to avoid keeping the blinds or curtains closed during the day or for long periods of time - spiders love dark and hidden locations
  • Invest in essential oils - strong scents will ward off spiders, so things like tea tree, rose, citrus, peppermint and lavender and all work
  • Seal up any cracks that could allow a spider into your house, or to use it as a hiding hole - grab a caulking gun and target spider access points like the walls, floors and ceilings