Arachnophobia is Real

Last July my husband and I were walking along the boardwalk with ABNC Volunteer Coordinator Elisa O’Neal. She was leading us on our new volunteer orientation. Suddenly I felt the soft and slightly sticky, unmistakable feeling of a spider web. I brushed it away and then asked my husband to check and make sure I had gotten all of it and there were no creepy-crawlies on my back. He assured me I had and there weren’t.

We walked a few more feet and I looked up – and realized we were walking beneath a canopy of spider webs. They were not just any webs, but huge and intricate, indicative of the type of spiders that lived along that space.

Then I saw the creatures that had spun these webs, enormous yellow and black spiders. They were busy in their webs all along the boardwalk. Their bodies are not terribly large, but their legs are very long. Some lay in wait for insects to get caught in their web. Some were busy making repairs to their web. I tried to take a photo of one but with my iPhone I couldn’t do a close enough closeup and ended up with just a blurry blob.

There was a time – most of my life, actually – when I could not look at a spider, or walk under webs of the type we walked through, or have anything to do with an activity that required my eyes be exposed to the “horror” of a spider. Just thinking about a spider activated a flight response. I even made sure to avoid the entire section with words beginning with “sp” when using the dictionary.

Yes, my arachnophobia was that serious.

I couldn’t, wouldn’t, and didn’t look at spiders of any size or type. But there came a time in my 40s that I decided I was too old to hang on to things like irrational fears. I used the technique that therapists use to cure phobias – exposure therapy. I made myself look at a picture of a spider for a few seconds. The next time I would spend a few more seconds. I built up my tolerance to just the simple task of looking at them.

Then I thought about why they evoked panic in me – not the source of my fear and revulsion, but which of their characteristics triggered it. I looked at photos and explained to myself that they had legs, yes, often hairy, yes, and that they used their legs to propel themselves from place to place. Just like, you know, us. Normal. Its eyes were for vision, and so forth. Just your average inhabitant of planet Earth.

Being able to normalize my view of spiders has enabled me to appreciate spiders in general, and especially the golden orb weavers that decorate the boardwalk, generally from summer into the fall, although they can be sighted in spring and even as late as November.  As fall is turning into winter, females lay their last clutch of eggs and then die with the first frost.

During one night hike at ABNC, when we got to the prairie platform to observe the glittering eyes of wolf spiders, I noticed a medium-huge spider web in a corner of the platform. It wasn’t home to an orb weaver, though. It was a medium size, dark-colored spider, species unknown to me. I looked at it. For several minutes. I pointed it out to other people. I wanted to share the discovery with our hike guests, but I realize now that I also wanted to show them that I had no fear, that there was nothing to fear, and that putting fear to the side enables us to truly appreciate the natural world.

Arachnophobia is real, but it can be overcome. I may never feel entirely comfortable around spiders, but I’m doing better.

I believe we all can do better. For instance, the father of a family I accompanied on a night hike had an irrational fear of spiders. I didn’t know how he would make it along the boardwalk, with all the webs above. But he white-knuckled it and got through, probably in large part because his kids were with him. I admire him for his calm in the face of something that was probably making him fight the urge to flee.

Bravo Dad, you did it, as did I! Arachnophobia is real but it can be overcome.

This originally appeared in the Armand Bayou Nature Center’s Wild About blog. Photo by Lyman Brown.