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"Arachnophobia" starring YOU

  • Asks ...

    I’m a middle school science teacher. Yesterday in class I was sitting at my desk teaching the class when a spider dropped down in front of me. I lost it and control and started screaming and then started crying and one of the boys in the front row came up to smash the spider for me. It took me a couple of minutes to calm down and obviously the whole class was shocked by my over the top behavior and I was certainly the talk of the playground after that.

    I have always been terrified of spiders but I’d say that my policy of just avoiding them isn’t working out so well. Teaching 7th and 8th graders is hard enough without being known as a crazy person, which is how I will be known as for the near future. I have to get a handle on this insane fear I have of spiders. But how can I do it?

  • Art Matthews Says ...
    Art Matthews

    What you are describing is called arachnophobia, one of the specific phobias. This one, triggered by spiders, activates your fight or flight response -- which we all have -- that automatically prepares us to deal with threats. Your F/F Response has been conditioned to trigger panic when you see a spider and maybe other creepy-crawlies.

    Tackling a phobia with the help of a behavioral therapist is often the best approach. The therapist will engage you in a slow process called "Systematic Desensitization" that will begin to expose you in various threat levels from least to highest to the trigger to your panic. The therapist will teach you relaxation techniques, cognitive (thought) techniques, gradually increase the exposure to the trigger and perhaps teach you self-hypnosis.

    Another type of therapy that may help is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming (EMDR). This is a specialized therapy that needs to be conducted by a trained and experienced therapist. It is a newer form of therapy that is based on reshaping cognitive and emotional experiences through engaging in recall during directed eye movements followed by processing. There is evidence that this therapy can help victims of trauma recoup faster than traditional talk therapy.

    My advice is to go with the Systematic Desensitization as extinguishing a phobic response is known to occur with that therapy, although the phobia can recur over time. Extinguishing the phobia the second time will likely take less time. Consider it a booster shot.

    The other issue here is your concern over what the students are thinking and saying. This can increase the stress you feel and keep your F/F Response partially activated so that you will be more likely that you will have a second panic attack when a spider comes to sit down beside ya. It's very likely that some of your students are at least squeamish and possibly phobic of something as well. They could react by being more compassionate towards you and coming to your defense or teasing you or spreading rumors about you. The latter behaviors are something common to people with low self-worth I refer to as the Magician's Trick -- "Don't look at me! Look at her!" One thing many 7th and 8th graders can struggle with is self-worth. but if memory serves, some event has a social lifespan of about two weeks in the 7th and 8th grade until something new happens.

    Use this as a teachable moment. Have someone with a psych background come into your class and describe phobias and educate the class on how they develop and how they can be extinguished. You can even address the science of psychology related to phobias as a class discussion!

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