Creepy, crawly and intuitively scary- spiders have long been a trigger for those who experience arachnophobia, an anxiety disorder caused by a fear of spiders. Those who suffer from the condition experience a wide range of symptoms. This can range from small spikes in anxiety in the presence of the creatures to full-blown panic attacks and avoiding outdoor spaces. Luckily, there are many ways to overcome this, the most heard-of method being exposure therapy where patients are routinely exposed to their object of fear. Understandably, however, many arachnophobes are reluctant to get cosy with a daddy long-legs. This begs the question, are there any other alternatives?
Recently, researchers from the University of Basel have developed an augmented reality app for smartphone users aimed at reducing people’s fear of spiders. The software, aptly named Phobys, was shown to have promising results in a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. How does it work? In a step by step process, 10 levels of virtual exposure therapy by which a 3D spider is added to the real world via camera are used to amplify feelings of safety around the creatures as opposed to fear. Through each stage, users come into contact with the virtual spider at increasing proximity as levels rise, and at one point directly interact with it. In the app’s study, individuals of the group who had used Phobys reported fewer feelings of fear in real-life situations with spiders and were even able to get closer to a spider trapped in a transparent box than those in a control group.
As we enter the autumn months, the season also brings out a plethora of spiders looking for a warm space to escape the cooling weather and most importantly, mate. Although recent developments with apps like Phobys will certainly make this period more bearable, arachnophobia aside many of us are not too happy with the idea of the eight-legged crawlers entering our homes unabashedly. Our first instinct upon seeing one scuttling across our floorboards may be to grab the nearest slipper, however, Norwich based entomologist and wildlife artist Vanna Bartlett suggests safely removing them with a glass and piece of cardboard is a better alternative. In an interview with Norwich Evening News, Bartlett draws attention to the usefulness of spiders; as insect predators, they are largely responsible for keeping unwanted pests out of our homes. Additionally, she states, “Spiders, in turn, are an important source of food to some of our favourite garden birds like the robin and the wren.”
Most importantly, Bartlett addresses common misconceptions around the danger of spiders, particularly in the UK. She states, “Instances of spiders biting people in the UK are extremely rare and it usually only happens if the spider feels threatened or trapped.” Further supporting the low risk to safety posed by the species, a bite from the UK’s most venomous spider, the false black widow, has been compared to that of a bee or wasp sting where the pain is short-lived.
With environmental importance, minimal risk to wellbeing and the advent of anti-arachnophobia technology, perhaps it is time to reconsider our outlook on our small, scuttling neighbours.