Crawling up your arm

By Charlotte Wiemann; double published in the BEE3 Magazine

You know it well. A little creature. Sometimes hairy, sometimes as thin as a needle. Often it sits in the corner of your room or crouches under your bed. With its eight legs, it moves swiftly and can hide anywhere. Some can even jump. The webs it produces are made of silk five times stronger than steel. If you haven’t already guessed what I’m talking about: I’m talking about spiders.

Arachnophobia, the fear of arachnids (spiders), is the sixth most common phobia in the world and occurs in two of ten men and six of ten women. Therefore, the chance that you know someone who fears them is very high. (Maybe someone from your family or one of your friends or even yourself.) I am terrified of spiders. When they are in my room or anywhere close to me, I get nervous and scared. I freeze and shout for my parents to remove the spider with a glass and cardboard. While they perform the routine procedure, while this is going on, I observe them and the spider, ensuring that it doesn’t escape unnoticed. And if a spider is on me, for example, crawling over my leg, I go straight into panic mode. I scream and try to get the spider off me. Maybe you feel and react like that as well.

The origin of this phobia is unclear, and scientists are still trying to figure out why so many people are affected by this phobia. I mean, it is kind-of strange, no? The fear is completely irrational if you live here in Brussels, as spiders are by no means an actual danger. A more rational fear would be the fear of falling off a cliff or something of the sort, which might lead to serious injuries or, worst-case scenario, death. Such a little animal won’t cause us, humans, much harm. We certainly don’t need to fear them because they threaten to eat or crush us.

Venomous spiders. Maybe that’s why we fear them so much. And that might even sound reasonable but believe it or not, even that is not a real danger here in Belgium. Even worldwide, you’re more likely to die from a mosquito bite than a spider. Around 50,000 species of spiders exist, and only 2% of them can actually harm humans. None of these species lives here. And the chances that you’re ever going to see one in your home (as long as you live near Brussels at least) are as low as getting eaten by an elephant.

The most common spider species in Belgium are the following (maybe you can look up pictures to check if you’ve seen them outside or at home). Firstly, we have the “Cross Orb Weaver” (you have probably seen this one outside, sitting in the centre of their net), or the “long bodied Cellar spider” (this is that disgusting spider that sits in your basement) and the “zebra jumping spider”. If any of them “attack” you: the bite might get itchy or swollen. It’s rare for them to bite, though. If it does happen, you should maybe see a doctor or at least keep track of the healing process. You definitely won’t die. The spider simply doesn’t have enough deadly venom to kill you. So, there is really no reason to be scared of it attacking you.

Since there isn’t a logical reason for the fear of spiders, scientists have a hard time trying to understand why arachnophobia is the sixth most common phobia worldwide. Different studies have been conducted, investigating whether the fear of animals, like spiders and snakes, is present from birth or learnt from our environment. My sister (now in P1 at our school) participated in a study like this when she was a baby. The babies were shown pictures of animals (for example fish, snakes, cats, dogs, and spiders). While they were all looking at the pictures, their emotions and reactions were tracked using a special hat with lots of wires connected to a computer which measured eye movement and brain activity. Shockingly the results showed that when exposed to the pictures of spiders and snakes, even the small babies showed signs of stress. But why? Why are we naturally so afraid of them?

That takes us way back to a time when other arachnids were seriously endangering the lives of humans. Scorpions. Scorpions may not be dangerous to people living in Belgium, but in other countries, you definitely don’t want to get stung by one. And a long time ago, humans didn’t have as much knowledge of medicine as we have now. So, if you were attacked and stung by a scorpion in a time before any form of treatment existed, you would have had serious health problems. If you were stung by a scorpion now – so in 2022 – no matter how poisonous the scorpion is, you would probably be sent to the hospital and get the treatment you need. With our modern understanding of technology and medicine, the survival rate after a scorpion bite is a lot higher than it was 1000 years ago. Therefore, we may have evolved to be scared of spiders at birth to protect us from scorpions.

So now, you know why so many people have arachnophobia. This phobia is most present during childhood, but sometimes it can still affect adults. If your fear of spiders is getting out of hand, then you could consider speaking to a psychologist, as this could help you reduce your anxiety. For most people, this isn’t necessary, as currently, only around 2% of arachnophobes need treatment.

If you want to get rid of your fear or help someone get rid of theirs. If the arachnophobe in question learns more about the animal, they might understand it better and see that it’s not as dangerous as they think it might be. They or you can also try to observe a spider directly or trapped beneath a glass (release it afterwards, of course). Like that you can learn to see the spider for the harmless, small animal that it is and maybe even learn to appreciate it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.