Mindfulness and phobias

How mindful attitude solved my arachnophobia

Since whenever I remember I irrationally feared spiders. Their long legs, moving so fast, blown by the wind in my face or suddenly dropping from a ceiling or a tree on their fine string would make me jump and yell. Not to mention how my skin crawled finding their nets under outside tables and chairs or in the corners of the rooms or in the basement.

I remember with embarrassment how I jumped and screamed in front of colleagues at work, with pure irrational and incontrollable reaction when a spider climbed down from the ceiling on its string right in front of me, or how my relatives learned that if they want me to enjoy a lovely evening in a summer night in a shed in nature, they had to first remove the spiders that found their home there. At times this ended up with the poor beasts being killed, which made me feel even worse.

But as annoying as it was not being able to control my reaction with regards to spiders it was never a real priority to address it in my life. My encounters with spiders were not frequent enough to give me much trouble, and with all my knowledge on psychology I understood the phobias mechanism, so even the knowledge gave me sufficient sense of control not to be much bothered, except for some unexpected embarrassing moments now and then. A few years I even grew a spider in a corner of my bathroom, as an exposure therapy. This improved my tolerance to the proximity of spiders, but the crawling feeling and alertness at the unexpected appearance of a spider as well as just at their presence close to me remained present in the background, even if, as years passed by, I became better at not showing it as much.

Then last summer, 2020, with everyone hopefully emerging after the first pandemic wave and timidly going outdoors, I met with my friends in the backyard garden of one of them, with distant chairs and timidly removing the masks at the table. August, warm, sun, happy to see each other…  nice food on the table, juicy watermelon…. and wasps, attracted by the feast! Everyone annoyed by the wasps, one jumping back from her chair, another flipping the arms around to shou away the wasps, not a one being comfortable with them, but being afraid of their stings. And me… all serene, just letting the wasps do their thing, with not a flinch of fear or discomfort, just watching calmly for them to take their food and go. I am not afraid of wasps. Or of mice, or snakes, or other such creatures … my irrational fear reaction is just to spiders and sharks, really.  

One wasp was flying around the hand in which I was holding the fork with the sweet watermelon treat. With a state of calm and neutrality I just noticed, like in slow motion, how unexpected it was to feel the air waves produced by its wings buzzing fast, almost like caressing my skin. And then the wasp landed on my finger, started to walk up on my hand, with its six legs gently making contact on my skin, giving me a silky, tickling feeling. It was wonderful, the awareness of the tactile sensations enhanced by the excitement of this encounter, with my attention fully present, absorbed by the experience. What a mindful encounter, and it was fascinating to just observe the wasp following its instinct to find food, cutting a small piece of fruit, and flying away, with no business whatsoever to sting me. I was not a danger to it, and I had a deep certainty that as long as I don’t try to threaten it the wasp will have no aggressive behaviour towards me whatsoever.

The day past, and some two weeks later I had an unexpected encounter with a spider who somehow landed on my kitchen table through the open garden door! And then it was my Eurika moment! How can I fear this spider, but not the wasp?! How that I perceive the spider as more dangerous than the wasp? What if I have with the spider the same mindful, observer attitude as with the wasp?!!! And suddenly, in one moment, my attention was projected to my senses, and waiting for the encounter with the spider. My irrational fear was no longer fused with me, as it was separated by my senses, really. It was just a blob of fear that was now clear to me that was the product of my imagination, separate from me. And everything irrational about it just vanished, and with that the magic grip of the fear dissolved in thin air! I was stunned! All remained behind was a weak shade of fear, more like a reserve in trying something unknown, but as I breathed through it gradually lost all its power. I tried to take the spider in my palm, to see how it feels like. However, the spider was not compliant with my desire of acquaintance, and was running away all the time, despite my gentle, but repeated efforts. I was so surprised by this also! I never considered that this beast might also fear me, and that coming across me is not something it would welcome! In the end I let it go, as I didn’t want to torture the poor spider.

The days after became a chase for spiders everywhere around me, with not much luck, as my days were spent working behind my desk, and whenever going into nature, the spiders would run away, safe in their environment, not eager to stay around and confirm that my irrational fear to them was gone for good. And then the cold came, and the winter, and I felt a bit as if I missed the momentum, I didn’t manage to go through the fire test with the spiders, to go all the way through.

But as spring came, late and rather cold this year, I was starting to look again for spiders, to finally face them. When I finally managed, it was such a surprise, as the touch of their long feet on my skin was even lighter than those of the wasp. As for the fear, the irrational part of it was completely gone. No more crawling skin, no more jumping feeling, but just a small boll of concern that maybe it will bite me, and I would not know what to expect. In my mind I am prepared for a bit of pain from a bite of a spider, if it comes to that. But it didn’t. It was again amazing to become aware how my belief that it can bite generated this fear, while the knowledge that the wasp would just not sting me unless I hurt it made me completely fear-less!

Thanks to mindfulness my relation with spiders has changed for good now, and I can already see how increasing my knowledge about spiders’ behaviour makes me almost neutral to their appearance, where the size of the spider is the only factor that still generates a small pondering before I dissipate any inner contraction. It is not so easy to capture these encounters on the camera, but it is with immense satisfaction that I can share with you one, authentic, if not artistic such encounter. And I hope that this story will inspire to share your story with how mindfulness touched your life.

With love,