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Herpetophobia

Fear of Reptiles

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Updated August 27, 2008

Herpetophobia, or fear of reptiles, is a relatively common phobia. Severity can vary drastically, making it difficult to decide whether you have a clinical phobia or simply a fear. Herpetophobia, like arachnophobia (fear of spiders), is believed by many to be an evolutionary phobia. Our ancestors tended to fear those animals that could cause harm, and the sheer number of venomous reptiles may have caused herpetophobia to develop over time.

As this fear is relatively common, it is used as a focus at many Halloween events such as Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 2008. In a haunted house set in the 1950s, a high school boy with a love of comic books develops a specific phobia of the giant squid, an animal believed at the time to be mythological. This is not strictly correct, as the giant squid is actually a marine cephalopod rather than a reptile, but the park takes artistic license to make the scene seem scarier.

The Phobia

In reality, herpetophobia is strictly limited to reptiles such as snakes and lizards. It is a very personalized phobia. Some sufferers are afraid only when touching a large snake, while others cannot even look at photographs of small, harmless geckos.

If you have herpetophobia, you might become afraid whenever you are in proximity to a reptile or even amphibian. You may be unable to shop in pet stores that offer reptiles for sale. You might be unwilling to go on hiking trips or other activities during which there is a chance of encountering a reptile. You might scream, cry, shake or hyperventilate if you unexpectedly encounter the object of your fear. If your phobia is less severe, you may be able to tolerate reptiles in the area, but panic if you come into physical contact with one.

The Treatment

In the Halloween Horror Nights scenario, the therapist uses hypnosis to convince the boy to face his fear of being slowly suffocated by the giant squid. In typical horror style, she wraps ropes around the patient during hypnosis to further the realism of the effect. Of course, even in the 1950s, this never would have legitimately happened. Today, it would be virtually impossible.

The most common treatment for specific phobias today, whether of reptiles or cephalopods, is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Such techniques as flooding and systematic desensitization may be used to help the client confront the object of fear. However, these techniques leave the client in control and are never used to terrorize or cause discomfort.

If you have symptoms of herpetophobia, it is very important to see your doctor or therapist right away. With proper treatment, phobias can be managed or cured. Over time, however, untreated phobias can worsen and become life-limiting. Your mental health professional will work with you to develop the treatment plan that is right for you.

Source:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

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