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Sssssnake.

Even hearing the word once made Louise's gut coil in fear.

As far back as she can remember, Louise had a morbid fear of snakes, to the point that as a child she wouldn't go in the backyard one entire summer because a harmless garter snake had been seen swishing through the grass.

"Even though my brother ended up killing it, I still would only go out through the front door," recalls the single mother of three in her late 30s, who asked that her real name not be used.

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She is not sure what triggered her terror of the belly-crawling reptiles -- called ophidiophobia -- but suspects she may have been spooked by a large snake as a little girl growing up in South America, or perhaps her parents reacted with distaste or even terror to the serpents.

"There were always large snakes about. There were pythons and anacondas."

But when her family moved to Southern Ontario, her aversion to the slitherers travelled with her. A garden hose moving in the grass, anything long and skinny that even remotely resembled a snake's undulating movement would set her heart pounding and leave her sweating and gasping for breath in a full-blown panic attack.

It was an incident at work two years ago that finally convinced her she had to get help.

"A friend at work, we used to play games and tease each other. He knew I was fearful of snakes and as a joke he put up this [computer]screen saver of just snakes. They were coral snakes all moving about, and I came into the room . . . and I screamed and ran out of the room and wouldn't speak to him for days on end.

"That was too much. I thought, 'I don't want anybody to do that to me again.' I was really angry and it brought to light that I really needed to do something."

Phobias go way beyond simple fear, says Randi McCabe, associate director of the Anxiety Treatment and Research Centre at St. Joseph's Hospital in Hamilton.

Dr. McCabe, who treated Louise, says more than 10 per cent of the population suffers from some kind of phobia, and those involving animals or insects are among the most prevalent.

"Animal fears are very common in the general population . . . but for most people the fear doesn't really interfere with their life," said Dr. McCabe, who has written a book -- Overcoming Animal and Insect Phobias (New Harbinger Publications) -- with fellow psychologist Martin Anthony. "So for a fear to be a phobia, it has to cause the person a lot of distress or impairment in their life."

"It's an irrational fear," Dr. McCabe said. "The person knows their fear is way out of proportion to the actual stimulus, but they can't control it."

The seeds of phobia often develop early in life.

A child might be frightened by a large dog, for instance, and develop a lifelong canine phobia, known as cynophobia. Sometimes, children become phobic about an animal or insect because adults around them have shown fright. There is also evidence to suggest a genetic component. Anxiety disorders and phobias tend to run in families.

Psychologist John Walker, director of the anxiety disorders program at Winnipeg's St. Boniface Hospital, says he works with schools to identify children with anxiety disorders, including animal and insect phobias.

Treatment involves gradually exposing the children or adults to the dreaded animal or insect over time in a bid to desensitize them and chip away at their apprehension.

"The most powerful approach for these phobias is to practise facing what you fear and spend time with them," Dr. Walker said.

Working with Dr. McCabe, Louise followed a step-by-step program that began with just looking at rubber snakes. She then moved to viewing pictures of snakes in a children's book.

"Every day my homework was just to look at the snakes and be more comfortable with looking at the snakes in the book and touching the pictures and working my way up from touching the tail to the head," she recalled. "It was desensitizing me."

Over successive sessions, she was able to hold rubber snakes, and even took them home or kept them in her purse as part of continuously increasing exposure -- and downgrading her discomfort.

When she was able to enter a reptile store and not only look at bull-nosed and Burmese pythons but also touch them, Louise knew she had conquered the phobia.

Her therapy culminated in a journey many people would probably find traumatic -- even without a crippling fear of the reptiles.

She and Dr. McCabe travelled to the snake pits of Manitoba, where hundreds of red-sided garters roil in a seething, undulating mass during mating season.

"It was amazing to be in there to watch these snakes move, amazing that I was that close to that many snakes and not sweating and not wanting to run or not crying. It was fantastic."

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