I’ve been an arachnophobe my whole life. I can’t remember a time when videos of spiders, or even photos or drawings, didn’t give me palpitations. As a kid Charlotte’s Web read as sinister propaganda. Even as an adult, just hearing the word ‘tarantula’ would make me feel like one was crawling on me (kind friends and colleagues took to calling it ‘the t-word’). I wish I could blame someone for these fears, but no one else in my immediate family screamed uncontrollably when a house spider scuttled across the floor.
A fear of spiders is the third most common phobia in the UK, so I know I haven’t been alone. But I’d grown increasingly frustrated by my arachnophobia over the years. I like to think of myself as a rational person, but that belief is hard to sustain when I’m shrieking in front of my colleagues because I saw an image of a spider on Twitter. I was also tired of being so afraid of something so benign.
Last month, after a humiliating encounter with a house spider in my wardrobe, I decided I’d had enough. I signed up to London Zoo’s ‘Friendly Spider Programme’, a half-day course that claims to ‘ease or eliminate the condition of arachnophobia’. I managed perhaps two hours’ sleep the night before.
The lead instructor Dave reassured me that the success rate of the programme is more than 90 per cent. Success is measured by each participant catching a British house spider in a plastic cup, sliding a piece of paper under the not-so-little guy and picking it up as if to release it. I told him I couldn’t imagine doing much more than screaming and running out of the room.
All participants in the course ranked their arachnophobia on a scale from one to ten. I answered honestly: a ten. ‘We’ve got a challenge on our hands,’ Dave said. But he was confident that by the end of the day I’d be able to say ‘tarantula’. He thought I’d be holding one, too.
The course was split into three segments: educational lectures, a group hypnotherapy session with an expert, and then a trip to the ‘Tiny Giants’ exhibition at the zoo. It was the first course to run since the pandemic, and some participants in our group of 40 had been waiting more than two years for the day to arrive. Even before the first lecture began, a few were crying. Individual versions of the course have been conducted before, but the success rate is higher when it’s done in groups. I could immediately see why. A camaraderie quickly built among us as we shouted out everything we despised about spiders: their legs, their movements, their lack of facial features. ‘Their overall evilness’ received applause. ‘Where do you hate finding them?’ ‘Inside,’ shouted one person. ‘Outside,’ shouted another. We weren’t just venting, but undergoing subtle cognitive behavioural therapy, intended to bring our fears to the surface, and break them down.
We learnt about our ‘flight, fight or freeze’ reactions, which are misplaced animal responses to danger – ‘misplaced’ because most spiders you come across won’t cause you harm. The palpitations are a result of your heart pumping faster, preparing you to run away. Muscles tighten, causing the hair on your arms and legs to raise up, creating the sensation that something’s crawling on you. ‘How many of you are worriers?’ Dave asked the group. Nearly everyone raised their hands. It’s one of the most common qualities that unites arachnophobes. Demystifying your reaction to spiders, he said, will bring some of those worries to an end.
They say knowledge is power. But the CBT and the following hypnotherapy session produced something stronger than power. I suspected magic. By the late afternoon, 40 arachnophobes were marching towards the zoo’s spider exhibition, armed with relaxation techniques: deep breaths in, dropping our shoulders, repeating in our heads that we were ‘calm, safe and at ease’ in the presence of spiders.
Most participants were just about keeping it together as we all arrived at the Tiny Giants exhibition, which had been closed off to the rest of the public. We entered a room in which golden orb spiders (which have legs that span up to five inches) hovered above us in the open. When it came to the next stage, I caught the house spider with relative ease. I even put my hand in a plastic crate and let one crawl over me. I was awarded a certificate for my efforts. I could have ended the course there – with proof that I could now calmly catch a spider. But there was more to come. Our instructor brought out Carole, the ‘friendly Mexican red knee’ tarantula. There was talk of bringing out another Mexican red knee, Millie, but Carole was in a ‘better mood’. I decided not to ask what that meant.
We took turns holding one of the world’s largest spiders in our hands. I hung back and was one of the last to go. Carole and I took it slow. I started by touching one of her back legs, which was silky soft. The tip of one leg was placed in my hand. Then two. The feet felt like a sticky cat paw. Then Carole was in my hands, resting gently across my palms. She was extremely light. I had always imagined tarantulas to be weighty things. Not remotely. It dawned on me quickly that I was in control. Once everyone had had a turn, I went back to hold Carole again, in a bid to further desensitise myself. I was more relaxed this time round.
I left the zoo having downgraded my fear level from a ten to a five: an arachnophobe in recovery. If I’m honest with myself, spiders still freak me out, but I’m confident I can deal with the next house spider I come across. And I’ve proven to myself that I can hold a tarantula, although it’s fine by me if that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Perhaps the biggest shock, however, was discovering that my lifelong phobia could be conquered in an afternoon. I had been indulging my fear for too long. That’s easy to do in a world that encourages us to avoid and bury what makes us twitch, but we are rarely better for it.