Herpetophobia is the irrational, unwarranted and persistent fear of reptiles. It is a highly common animal phobia. The word Herpetophobia originates from “Herp” meaning snake or reptile and “Phobos” which stands for the Greek God of Fear.
The fear of reptiles is often combined with Ophidiophobia which is specifically the fear of snakes, but they are both rather different and should not be confused with each other. Most individuals suffering from Herpetophobia are not just afraid of dangers posed by reptiles like snakes (mainly due to their venom), they are even afraid of harmless wall lizards (which generally do not pose any danger). Hepretophobia also means that the phobic is not just afraid of live reptiles; s/he may be even afraid of the thought of reptiles or might avoid watching them in the form of pictures, in movies, at the zoos etc.
Causes of Herpetophobia
Some animals instill fear in humans for no particular reason. Herpetophobia is one such fear. Often times, the sufferers do not have any reason for fearing reptiles. Perhaps, the fear is just evolutionary. Early humans and cave dwellers often encountered snakes and other venomous, often, gigantic reptiles. The bite of these animals was almost always fatal. As a result; early humans stayed away from these creepy crawlers taking care to avoid trees, bushes, stones and rocks where these creatures normally dwelled.
Another important cause of the extreme fear of reptiles could be owing to a negative experience in the past pertaining to such creatures. A child, or even an adult, might have had a run-in with a reptile: a lizard might have fallen on him/her or in one’s meals, or a snake might crawled over one’s feet during a nature hike etc. The creepy crawling slimy sensation is enough to scare people having a nervous predisposition.
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In other more serious cases, the fear might have arisen due to the death or injury of a loved one upon being stung by poisonous reptile. Even some cases of non fatal reptile bites (experienced by the phobic directly or indirectly) could cause lifelong fear of reptiles.
Symptoms of fear of reptiles
Whatever the cause of Herpetophobia, it is often an escalating fear. In the beginning, the phobic might simply avoid gardens, zoos, forests or pet stores selling reptiles. S/he might then refuse to leave the house completely owing to the fear of encountering reptiles. The fear might even take over the individual completely, often combining with other phobias. The symptoms of Herpetophobia are varied and may be physical or emotional. They include:
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- Shaking, trembling, and sweating profusely.
- Crying or screaming not just at the sight but the mere thought of reptiles.
- Having a dry mouth, accelerated heart rate, breathing rapidly, feeling nauseated, dizzy or feeling like running away or escaping.
- The sight of a live reptile (even images in books or on TV screen) can set off a full blown panic attack.
- Avoidance behavior is another symptom of Herpetophobia. The individual might refuse to go on trail hikes, for camping etc. S/he might even dread visiting a pet store or a zoo or might refuse to watch a movie having reptiles.
As stated above, Herpetophobia can slowly progress and lead to several other symptoms including feeling a detachment from reality or feeling like one is going crazy. A simple suggestion of a trip to the zoo etc can cause crying, panic attack, trembling etc. Such people therefore tend to be socially withdrawn and/or depressed.
Overcoming the fear of reptiles
There are many therapies and treatment modalities that can help phobics overcome Herpetophobia. Hypnosis is one such therapy. It works by assessing the root cause of the phobia and also helps eliminate the individual’s conditioned response to his/her object of fear. Hypnosis techniques are also used to make the person feel more relaxed so that they become open to suggestions. The therapist then uses ‘commands’ to bring about desired change in the individual.
NLP or neuro linguistic programming is another technique that can help one overcome this fear. The patient is first asked to revisit the episode that has led to the phobia. S/he is then asked to “float up” and re-watch the episode as if in a movie. The patient is then given the prompt to walk up to his/her “younger self in the movie”, release the dissociation and comfort the younger self. Following a couple of sessions of this therapy, the patient may be asked to talk about the fear to ensure that positive changes are realized.
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Other mentionable therapies to help overcome fear of reptiles are talk therapy, Systematic desensitization and group therapy. All these have been proven to be highly effective in overcoming Herpetophobia for good.