Why those creepie crawlies bug us

By Gillian Orr

Many of us have something that brings us out in a cold sweat and makes our hair stand on end.

Whether it's being trapped in a lift, flying or peering over the top of a skyscraper, phobias affect one in 10 of the population. And a fear of creepy crawlies is among the most common of phobias.

Should you suffer from entomophobia (the fear of insects), there is every chance you won't be interested in Sir David Attenborough's next show Micro Monsters 3D, in which the beloved naturalist uses the latest technology to bring to life the extreme and unseen world of bugs.

But while phobias might be one of the most common psychiatric disorders, they are also among the most curable. As well as various behaviour therapies, hypnotherapy is a popular way to desensitise sufferers.

There are actually only two things we fear when we are born: loud noises and falling, our fight-or-flight instinct reacting to a perceived harmful attack. But other fears can be developed early on.

"Our memory begins before we are even born and continues all the way through until the day we die," explains David Samson, a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist who specialises in the treatment of phobias.

"All this data is recorded somewhere. Ten per cent of it gets stored in the conscious while the other 90 per cent is stored in the subconscious. For approximately the first six years of our life, virtually everything that you see, feel, hear or smell gets dumped into the subconscious. Once you get to 6 years of age, a different process happens and the conscious brain takes in all this data, but it then filters it into the conscious and subconscious. But it's the pre-6-year-old stuff that I deal with because it's when learned behaviour takes place."

Samson says a 1-year-old seeing a spider for the first time would most likely be inquisitive. Problems arise from the reaction to the child's fearlessness. "A child moves their hand towards it, then a parent walks in and tells them in a louder-than-normal voice not to touch it, uses a faster-than-normal hand movement and perhaps even kills it. This is something extraordinary and suddenly the child has learned something. A folder is created in the subconscious called 'spider', and within that folder is something to be fearful of." This will lie dormant until the subconscious thinks you might be in danger.

"Let's say many years later the child is at a friend's house and out of the corner of their eye they see a spider," says Samson. "Their conscious brain, the more intelligent bit, tries to rationalise it, but more pressure is placed on it by the subconscious, which is telling them to get the hell out of there. In a nutshell, this is how phobias develop."

Face the fear

* The most common forms are melissophobia (fear of bees) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders). It is estimated that up to 50 per cent of women and 10 per cent of males suffer from the latter.

* Only blood feeders (mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, bedbugs) actively pursue humans. The most common phobic objects (spiders, bees) never bite or sting unless trapped or seriously threatened.

* Lepidopterophobia is the fear of butterflies. The website ihatebutterflies.com and its affiliated Facebook community boast more than 2200 members.

* In extreme cases, victims imagine their skin is crawling with insects. This is called formication, and sufferers can scratch their skin raw.

* Our fear has been handed down through evolution. A monkey will run from a wiggling rope even if it has never seen a snake, a fear that does not require previous experience of danger.

- Independent

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