I’m sitting at the kitchen table of Holger Kirk, biologist and publisher of the website spinnen-angst.de, leafing through a children’s book.
He is also the place to go to for people with extreme arachnophobia, those who can’t even look at pictures of the eight-legged creatures without panicking. I don’t have a phobia, I just have a little too much, well, respect.
We proceed. Now after the children’s book, Holger presents me with a volume of WHAT IS WHAT and then a scientific tome on spiders: from anatomy to breeding techniques.
My wife Annette and my two daughters join in because anxieties of grownups can transfer to children and block them as well. So let’s have a family session.
We slip into the role of a spider ourselves and crawl with a hand puppet over our own bodies.
First steps of spider desensitisation: Smilla crawls over my body with a spider hand puppet.
The crawling continues, with increasingly real-looking specimens. A plastic spider about five centimeters in size is indistinguishable from a real house spider from a meter away. I take that in my hand as well and walk it over my bare arm.
At the same time I do feel quite stupid.
At the same time I do feel quite stupid. But my autonomic nervous system doesn’t kick in. And that is crucial. Because the autonomic nervous system starts the automatic fear programs. Fright, panic, flight are the result. This is exactly what does not happen now. The careful playing with cloth dolls and rubber spiders is harmless for the waking consciousness – and also for the autonomic nervous system.
Only one spider is real, all the others are ‘test objects’ made of rubber or plastic.
The next step is being confronted with a real dried spider skin. That already feels a bit more real, even if the thing does not move (anymore).
Then the first live specimen comes into play: a small house spider. Holger puts it on the table. The eight-legged creature dashes to the other end, where my arm forms a barrier. The first skin contact. The spider turns around, after about a minute or so it runs out of steam.
Spiders are sprinters, not endurance runners. Walking along so leisurely, the spider already looks a lot more harmless than before. “That’s because you can now predict their movements much easier and have better control of the situation overall.” I see.
Quite impressive: a real spider skin.
Then the second live specimen. Now we’re already dealing with a Chilean tarantula: Cosima.
Holger holds his hands as if to make a snowball. Inside is Cosima. One leg sticks out from between his fingers. “Come on, shake hands!” prompts Holger.
With my slowly advancing index finger, I make the first handshake.
Holger’s hand opens, Cosima stomps across the tabletop and gets close: she wanders over the back of my hand – and does so a few times. We get even closer: Holger asks me to lift my hand as soon as Cosima wanders across it next time.
Then the moment has arrived!
Personal premiere: My first tête-à-tête with a tarantula.
I can’t believe it quite yet: I have a tarantula on my hand. For the first time in my life!
But I can’t savor my little triumph, because Holger’s biggest specimen is about to appear on the scene: Louisa, a Bombardier bird spider. We go through the same getting-to-know-you ritual as with Cosima.
During the handshake with Louisa, the size ratio is clearly visible, but my nervousness is not.
Louisa climbs onto my hand – and a few minutes later Holger puts her on my head. Interestingly enough, that’s okay with me, because I don’t see Louise now.
Ergo: Spider? We did it.
What else does Holger have up his sleeve? Scorpion, snake and cockroach. Okay, let’s do it.
And it works well. I don’t have much of a problem with snakes anyway, but rather with scurrying cockroaches and stinging scorpions.
The procedure is again exactly the same as with Cosima and Louisa.
King scorpion Hamlet, cockroach Schabi (not in the picture) and snake Hagen also come into play.
I am wondering all the time what is going on. Why am I not afraid? I am nervous, excited – but I don’t pull my hand away. Or flee.
My intention to prevail in the nebulous fight with my fear is strong. It has, by the gradual, careful desensitization – and the declaration of victory after every step no matter how small, been given proper confidence and ammunition.
It seems like my fear has dissipated.
It seems like my fear has dissipated. Simply gone!
Holger explains that the new physical experience – perceiving the fake and real spiders via hand, skin, arms, head and movement – has neurophysiologically overwritten and thus erased the old fear.
This new experience does not hold forever however, one should ‘refresh’ it every now and again. Holger compares it with rock-climbing: Many climbers lose their freedom from giddiness during the non-climbing period and have to retrain it at the beginning of a new season.
It is similar with fear: That big, panic-inducing fear – it does not return in the original intensity as before desensitization. But it can be triggered again to a lesser extent- in unprepared moments of fright, when body and mind are tired, drained and stressed.
Ich habe gelernt, dass meine Angst oft auf Unwissenheit basiert.
Yet, I have learned a lot about fear. I have learned that my fear is often based on ignorance. Not every spider, snake or scorpion stings and bites just out of the blue – if I stay calm and don’t give the animals a reason for starting their attack or defence programs – then, usually, hardly anything can happen.
More about fear, its management (among other things with the ‘baby steps’), scientific backgrounds – in my lecture “From scaredy-cat to the alpha animal – how to get rid of fear”.
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