Snake Phobia:
Common & Treatable

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

Lots of people have snake phobias, but most don't feel the need to seek out professional help. If you live in a city like Chicago, where snakes are pretty rare, the fear of snakes may not cause you any trouble at all.

However, some people with snake phobias do find that it interferes with their activities. Parents don't want their children to pick up their fear of snakes, and dread the day when their child brings home a picture book of snakes, or asks to visit the reptile house of the local zoo. Someone whose spouse or partner enjoys hiking in forest preserves or other areas where snakes may be present may find that their avoidance of these places prevents what would otherwise be an enjoyable activity with their partner, maybe even limits their choice of vacation sites. Some people have a sufficient fear of snakes that simply seeing an ad on television for movies like "Snakes on a Plane" or "Anaconda" can really spoil their day.

Some people have a strong enough snake phobia that a chance encounter with the word snake in a magazine article, or a picture of one, can elicit a strong emotional reaction they find embarrassing. And some people do live in areas where encounters with snakes are more likely, and have a daily need to manage their fear.

If you are a person with a real need to overcome a snake phobia, please be aware that this is a very solvable problem.

Why do people fear snakes?

This is usually the first question that occurs to a person who has a snake phobia. People acquire phobias in a variety of ways. You may have had a difficult encounter with a snake at some point; you might have observed someone else become afraid in the presence of a snake; or you may have read, or heard, scary stories about snakes.

However, you might not have had any negative experiences with snakes at all, and be unable to attribute your fear to any particular experiences. This often confuses people, and leads them to become preoccupied with the "why?" question. In the process, they feel embarrassed about their fear, and wonder "what's wrong with me?". This leads them to blame themselves without good reason, because lots of intelligent, competent, otherwise successful and worthwhile people have a fear of snakes, or similar phobias that they wish they didn't have.

It appears as though there are genetic predispositions to certain fears, and that some phobias are easier to acquire than others. A phobia for objects that have never been dangerous to humans in our long history is much harder to acquire than a phobia for an object that did pose a threat to humans during some time and in some circumstances. So it would be hard to acquire a phobia for bunny rabbits, and easier to acquire a fear of snakes, or heights, or water, because there were times in our evolutionary history when those objects could pose a threat to survival.

However, for the most part, it really doesn't matter how you became afraid of snakes. Successful treatment isn't usually concerned with the "why" question at all, but instead focuses on desensitization and exposure to snakes.

If you have a fear of snakes that causes you trouble, I think you're best served by understanding that this fear is your problem, but not your fault, and moving on to find snake phobia treatment, if that's what you want. Don't waste time and energy blaming yourself!

How is snake phobia overcome?

Most phobias are best overcome by exposure to the feared object, and this is true for snake phobias as well. So if you come to see me (or any qualified professional) for help in overcoming the fear of snakes, the treatment will most likely involve exposure to an actual snake, in addition to whatever work we might do with pictures and videos.

Exposure for snake phobias (or any other kind of phobia) can generally be done in either a progressive manner, in which the exposure is done in small steps, over time; or an intensive manner, in which we do a lot of exposure in one appointment. One well established method of treating snake phobias has been developed by Dr. Lars-Göran Öst, a Swedish psychologist who specializes in this area.  His intensive method generally involves a single, three hour session of exposure to a live snake. I use Dr. Öst's method if the client is willing to take this approach.

Sometimes people are reluctant to use the intensive treatment, and prefer a progressive approach. I also use the progressive method, principally when the client prefers it. Both methods are effective.

If you'd like to watch a video of Dr. Öst doing a session of snake phobia treatment, click here.

If you plan to do your own self help exposure work without the assistance of a professional, here is a useful guide you can download for free. It's entitled Overcoming Animal & Insect Phobias, and was written by Dr. Martin Antony and Dr. Randi McCabe, Canadian psychologists who specialize in the treatment of fears and phobias. The book is out of print, and they have graciously made it available as a free PDF document.Thanks, Doctors!

If you're doing this on your own, be sure to also review my article on exposure treatment.

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© 2010-2024 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
P.O. Box 256539, Chicago, IL 60625

Last updated on June 25, 2024