Tali Leibovich, a PhD student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (who herself is afraid of spiders) recently published a study in which she found that arachnophobia makes spiders appear larger than they really are.
Yes, people with a fear of spiders consistently over-estimated the size of spiders. The arachnophobes did not misjudge the size of butterflies or birds, or even wasps, even though wasps are indeed dangerous. It seems our emotions drive us to experience the same world in very different ways.
It seems our emotions drive us to experience the same world in very different ways.
Fear triggers a stress response in our body. That is, after all, what the stress response is there for – to help us deal with danger. But fear can also cause us to exaggerate situations and challenges. Making a mountain out of a mole-hill, as the saying goes.
Now, real phobias are serious business and should be addressed by a psychologist (interventions like cognitive behavioural therapy and visual-kinaesthetic dissociation have been very effective in curing specific phobias). But all of us have fears of one sort or another – everyday “spiders” that make us feel stressed – things like rushing to meet deadlines, or driving in heavy traffic, or dealing with difficult people. Feeling relaxed in situations like these can put things in the right perspective. It can help you to see the spider at its true size, and deal with it appropriately, scooping it up and ushering it outside where it belongs.
Being terrified of the “spider” doesn’t help you to deal with it. The spider is still there whilst you’re staring at it, paralysed. The same way, stressful situations can be paralysing. Running away from a spider won’t get it out of your house either. At some point, you’ve got to come back home and deal with it. So learning to control stress in difficult situations gives you the power to do something about the situation, and take an active role in dealing with challenges.
What you can do
Make a list of your spiders. Large and small. Think back over the past month or so, and try to remember every situation where stress or fear came up. And grab a piece of paper, or start a new memo on your smartphone, and keep track of all the little things over the next couple of days that make you feel stressed. We can discuss these together and use relaxation therapy to rehearse being more comfortable and in control in those situations, and then you’ll be able to deal with your “spiders”, no matter what size they are.
And that’s a great feeling.