Beloved action hero Indiana Jones is known for fearlessly rushing into ancient ruins to rescue damsels and priceless artifacts, only to get the heebie-jeebies from a booby trap with snakes. “Snakes!” he yells. “Why is it always snakes?”
If you’re someone struggling with ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, then you know exactly how our adventurer feels.
Since snakes are often depicted as threatening or dangerous, a fear of snakes is considered a given — who wouldn’t be afraid of something that can kill you with one bite?
However, in the modern day, if you find you’re unable to function in your life or that you lose all control at the mere mention of a snake, you may be dealing with more than just the healthy respect a wild predator deserves.
Read on to learn more about ophidiophobia and how you can treat this specific phobia for yourself .
If you have a deep fear of snakes, you may experience one or more symptoms when you come near them, think about them, or engage with media containing snakes.
For example, if your co-worker discusses their pet ball python in the break room, you may have one or more of the following reactions:
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- sweating, especially in your extremities such as your palms
- increased heart rate
- difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- trembling and shaking
These symptoms may worsen as you get physically closer to a snake or as the time of a proposed snake interaction grows closer to happening.
Much like other specific phobias, a fear of snakes can come from a variety of causes. It may actually have multiple factors, each layered on top of the other, taking a latent (undeveloped) fear and turning it into something anxiety inducing. Some causes of ophidiophobia include:
- A negative experience. A traumatic experience with a snake, especially at a young age, could leave you with a long-term phobia of the creatures. This could include being bitten or being in a frightening environment that prominently featured snakes and in which you felt trapped or helpless.
- Learned behaviors. If you grew up seeing a parent or relative demonstrating terror around snakes, then you may have learned they were something to fear. This is true of many specific phobias, including ophidiophobia.
- Portrayal in media. Often we learn to fear something because popular media or society tells us it is scary. Clowns, bats, mice, and indeed snakes often end up in this position. If you saw too many scary movies or frightening images featuring snakes over a long period of time, you could learn to be afraid of them.
- Learning about negative experiences. Hearing someone describe a frightening experience with a snake could be triggering. Fear often comes from the expectation of something causing pain or discomfort as opposed to a memory of actually experiencing it.
Specific phobias can sometimes be delicate to diagnose, as not all of them are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). This is a reference tool that mental health professionals use when diagnosing different mental health issues or disorders.
In this case, your fear of snakes may be diagnosed as a specific phobia, which means an intense fear or anxiety in response to a specific trigger, such as an animal, environment, or situation.
The first step in learning your diagnosis is to discuss your symptoms and fears with your therapist. You’ll talk through different memories or experiences you have of your phobia to help them get a clear picture of your history.
Then, together, you can talk through different possible diagnoses to see which feels the closest to your own personal experience. Afterward, you can decide together on possible treatment.
There is no single treatment for a specific phobia like ophidiophobia. And you may decide to explore a few different styles of treatment in conjunction with one another. It’s all about finding the right combination that works for you. Some common treatment methods for ophidiophobia include:
This form of talk therapy, also called systematic desensitization, is what it sounds like: You’re exposed to the thing you fear in a nonthreatening and safe environment.
For ophidiophobia, this may mean looking at pictures of snakes with your therapist and discussing the emotions and physical reactions that come up in response.
In some cases, you may try using a virtual reality system to be around a snake in a natural but digital space where it feels like you’re there, but nothing can truly hurt you. You may work up to being around real snakes in a safe and regulated environment like the zoo.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
With this type of talk therapy, you work on setting short-term goals with your therapist to change patterns or problems in your thinking. Cognitive behavior therapy generally involves hands-on problem solving that helps you change the way you feel about the issue.
In this case, you may talk through ways to reframe snakes so that they are no longer something to be feared. You might go to a lecture by a herpetologist, someone who studies snakes, so you can learn more about the animals.
Medication is best used in conjunction with regular talk therapy while treating your phobia. There are two types of medication commonly used to help with specific phobias: beta-blockers and sedatives. With beta-blockers, your heartbeat pumps a little slowly, so if you have a panic or fear response, this can help you to feel calm and relaxed instead of spiraling.
Sedatives are prescription drugs to help you relax. However, they can lead to dependence. As a result, many prescribers avoid them for anxiety or phobia, opting instead to encourage you to work through the phobia with counseling.
getting help for ophidiophobia
- Find a support group. You can check the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website to find a phobia group near you.
- Contact a therapist or counselor. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration has a directory to find a therapy center near you.
- Contact a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. The American Psychiatric Association has a directory of professionals to help you get started.
- Talk openly with a trusted friend or family member. Reducing shame and stigma around your fear can help it to feel less isolating and intense.
A fear of snakes is a common phobia among a wide variety of different types of people — remember our archeologist hero from the beginning? Even he was afraid of them. But the best way to conquer our fears is to name them and face them.
By talking with a therapist and seeking support from trusted friends and family members, you can find a way to reduce your anxiety and live a life free from ophidiophobia.