Chances are, our fear of spiders started from a very young age. Pictures of spiders posed a threat to our safety, as they haunted our nightmares and weaved their webs in our room. Years later, the eight-legged creatures continue to give us goosebumps, but researchers at the University of Manchester in England suggest we can overcome our arachnophobia by exercising control.

The study, published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, uses the "perceptual control theory" to confirm letting the patient control their own approach towards fears is more likely to help than for a psychologist to "encourage" or "direct" them.

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"Perceptual control theory predicts that it is vital for a client to have control over their experience of important elements of the environment like the sources of threat, because control itself is pivotal for health and well-being," said Dr. Warren Mansell,


Typically, psychologists use exposure therapy to help patients overcome their anxiety and/or distress. They progressively expose the patient to a stronger fear-inducing stimuli, until fear is minimized, and then eliminated. The patient is allowed to terminate the procedure at any time.

Mansell and his colleagues sought to determine whether the direct approach or perceptual control can lessen the severity of our spider phobia. A total of 96 people with high levels of spider fear — 28 percent had a clinical level of phobia — were asked to list their reasons for avoiding spiders, and for approaching spiders. Upon this task, the patients could move an image of a spider closer or further away on a computer screen.

The findings revealed patients who had control over their virtual distance from the spider were able to get closer to a spider after completing the task. Moreover, these patients self-reported avoiding spiders less every day two weeks after the experiment. This was done despite their fear, and without the instruction of a therapist.

Mansell believes, "This implies that therapists treating phobias and anxiety may not need to encourage or direct their clients to face their fears, as is often assumed."

The researchers believe it is the awareness of a patient's mixed motives that allows them to make choices that helps them address their fears naturally.

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Previous research has found very brief exposure (without awareness) to spider images in people with arachnophobia, strongly activates the subcortical regions of the brain, which are involved in immediate fear processing. However, the participants did not experience fear consciously, because the very brief exposure also activated brain regions that regulate fear. Meanwhile, clearly visible exposure to the spider images deactivated areas of the brain that regulate fear responses, and activated the conscious experience of fear.

Here, the researchers suggest the brain is better equipped to process fear stimuli when it's present without the person's conscious awareness. In other words, people may be better prepared to face their fears if they are not consciously aware that they've faced them.

Similar to Mansell's study, the concept is focused on the element of control, and how much a patient approaches or avoids their fear, naturally.

Mansell acknowledges his experiment warrants further investigation to evaluate whether it can make a lasting difference in those with phobias that can interfere with people's lives.

There is no right or wrong way to deal with a phobia. Psychologists still don't know whether it's better to give patients total control of facing their phobia, practicing direct exposure, or very brief exposure.

Until then, practice overcoming your fear of spiders at your own pace.

Source: Healey A, Mansell W, and Tai S. An experimental test of the role of control in spider fear. Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 2017.

See Also:

Overcoming Fear, Be It Of Spiders Or Public Speaking, Means Reteaching Your Brain To Think

This Is Your Brain On Fear