Why We Fear Snakes: The Science Behind People’s Dread of Snakes
Snakes slither across the ground with unmatched agility and reflexes, and the ability to strike before a human can even begin to react. What seems like an abnormal fear or an irrational fear is anything but irrational. Consider the size an anaconda or the drop of a snake’s poison being so deadly it could kill an elephant. If a snake that’s 14-feet long goes to attack, it’s easy to see why we fear snakes. Humans have an inherent fear of the unknown, and when some snakes can potentially kill you, it seems more realistic to fear a snake. But, how do you classify this specific phobia?
Table of Contents
- 1. What is Ophidiophobia?
- 2. How Common is Ophidiophobia?
- 3. What Causes Ophidiophobia?
- 4. What are the Symptoms of Ophidiophobia?
- 5. When Should You Confront Your Fears and See a Doctor?
- 6. How is Ophidiophobia Treated?
1. What is Ophidiophobia?
Ophidiophobia is when a person has an excessive fear of snakes. The odd factor behind this fear is that you’re far from alone in your fear of snakes. Nearly 1 out of 3 people have Ophidiophobia, and it’s thought to be brought on by two main things:
- An innate reaction
If you were bitten by a snake when you were younger, it’s easy to see why you might be scared of these slithering pests even if they’re a mere 6 – 8 inches in length. When you have a true phobia, it goes well beyond the normal low fear of seeing a snake. No, it goes into an intense fear response.
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These responses can be:
- Anxiety attacks
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart palpitations
- Feeling faint
And some people have such an aversion to snakes that they will even get spooked at the sight of a snake picture. Imagine sitting here browsing through this very article only to feel nausea and an intense fear that makes you want to hide under the covers and cry yourself to sleep. This is the fear that some people experience when they see a snake or even a picture of a snake.
2. How Common is Ophidiophobia?
Remember when I said you’re not alone with your fear of snakes? Well, it gets even better. A person can have a fear of snakes despite their:
If you had a bad experience with a snake when you were a child, there is a higher chance that you’ll have a natural fear of snakes. A family member with pet snakes may have caused your overwhelming fear due to negative childhood events:
- Allowing the snake to bite you
- Telling you scary snake stories
You know, the type of evil things family members, especially siblings, find joy in doing to a younger child or relative. It’s meant in good fun, but it can be one of those moments in your life that will haunt you repeatedly. There were so many different stories and scary ideas put into my mind by my brothers that led to me being afraid of everything from snakes to fish. Researchers have found that a human’s fear of snakes is one of the most intense and common fears in the world.
An interesting study conducted on infants found a few things to be true:
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- Infants may associate fear with snakes
- Startle responses were no different when a snake was present
So, the results are inconclusive at best. Some research suggests babies are afraid of snakes, while other forms of research says that this is a mere fallacy. In either case, there are three main factors leading to why we fear snakes.
3. What Causes Ophidiophobia?
Since there is such a widespread fear of snakes, it’s common for scientists to study and research these fears. Psychologists are especially interested in this area because it helps us understand how fear works and moves humans to a better understanding of how to self-help anxiety and fears. For many people, this is a rational fear and a normal fear response to a potential predator that can be far more deadly than their human counterparts. But what exactly causes this fear of snakes?
Evolutionary fears may be the reason for such an innate fear of snakes. While there is still a high snake population today, the population must have been even larger centuries ago. Imagine a tribe member going out into the wild to kill a massive boar to feed his tribe, only to be bitten by a small snake. The snake didn’t just startle the fearless hunter, it also caused him great pain. An immediate shooting pain occurs, and then the hunter begins to feel weak. His muscles can no longer support his bodyweight as he tries to stand. Intent on feeding his tribe, he tries to stand only to find that he can’t move his legs and his breathing becomes labored. He dies.
And this is a scenario that can very easily happen in today’s world. Some snake venom can kill a person in less than an hour. Some venom will cause a person’s organs to begin to fail. Other venom will cause bleeding. Some venom will cause blindness. Other venom attacks the nervous system, causing people to fall into convulsions. It’s horrifying experiences like these that may have embedded a fear of snakes in a person’s DNA.
Traumatic experiences of the past may have caused people to evolve to have a fear of snakes, but there are also very real and present traumatic experiences that can cause a person to have great fear. The example above is an extreme case, and humans are almost conditioned to have a fear of snakes through:
- Internet videos and pictures
Traumatic experiences are a proven reason for humanity’s fear of snakes.
Cultural factors and traumatic experiences often overlap, as people tend to have a fear of snakes because it’s been taught to them in their culture. Just think when someone tells you that you must be afraid of something, it has a lasting impact that can actually cause a sort of cultural fear of snakes – or anything else for that matter.
A great example of this is the Bible. People following the Catholic and Christian religions are taught to distrust snakes. When a traumatic experience, whether it happened to you personally or was described to you in vivid detail, occurs, this can have a lasting psychological impact on a person that propels their fear into a whole new level of anxiety. Negative beliefs of snakes are very strong and powerful. Sometimes, the reasons why we fear snakes is because a great aunt was once bitten by a snake. The experience may have never occurred to you, but there has been a cultural conditioning in your family to view snakes as bad.
4. What are the Symptoms of Ophidiophobia?
You’re pretty sure you have mental health conditions. Relaxation, imagination exercises are doing nothing to calm your fear. You’re tired of regular, untrained people saying that there’s nothing uncommon with your fear.
I get it: no one wants to admit they have a fear. And when you think of poisonous snakes, it’s easy to justify your fear. I mean, I might not be afraid of a T-Rex, but if one was running around and has the same high population that snakes have, I would be horrified to step outside. Snakes give some people this same horror.
You might have a mild case of ophidiophobia, and I think everyone does to an extent. I might think something is wrong with you if you come face-to-face with a 12-foot snake and aren’t scared at all. But what about debilitating fears? These are when we can consider your fear more of a phobia than a meager fear.
You can tell the symptoms of ophidiophobia if you suffer from:
- Intense heart palpitations or fear when seeing a snake
- Crying, screaming or running away from a snake
- Avoidance of zoos or outside areas where snakes might be present
- Panic attacks where you have difficulty breathing
- Numbness or sweating when seeing a snake
- Feeling of being faint
- Chest pain or muscle tightness
And these symptoms aren’t just experienced when you see a snake in person. People may experience all of these symptoms when they merely view a snake picture or video online. This is when you know that you’re really suffering from ophidiophobia and not just dealing with an overreaction. The bad part is that some people will allow ophidiophobia to overtake their lives.
The fear can get so bad that a person will avoid going outside altogether so that they never have to confront their fear of snakes. Even people in areas where snakes don’t live can be afraid to go outside just in case they come across the only snake on the entire continent.
5. When Should You Confront Your Fears and See a Doctor?
If you’re thinking of seeing a doctor, taking an anxiety test and overcoming ophidiophobia once and for all, you’re definitely on the path to recovery. A basic, normal fear of snakes is practically embedded in a human’s DNA. People fear things that can kill them or harm them.
No one steps in front of an angry rhino and doesn’t fear the rhino killing them with their horn. If you didn’t fear anything, a lot of people would think something was wrong with you, too. It’s almost ironic, but for a small fear, you might not even need to see a doctor. A good question to ask yourself is: does my fear impact my life? If you’re not doing things you want, such as going on a hike, because you fear snakes, then this may be cause to go and see a doctor for your issue.
6. How is Ophidiophobia Treated?
Ophidiophobia follows a pretty standard path of treatment for any form of a phobia. There are numerous treatment options, and a doctor may recommend that you combine all three of these treatment options if one of the treatment options doesn’t work on its own.
Desensitization requires the patient (in this case, you) to desensitize their fears through exposure. I will give you an example of how this form of therapy is utilized and can help you overcome your fear of snakes. A form of therapy may include:
- Confronting a toy snake
- Petting the toy snake
- Holding the toy snake
And once you’ve done all of this, the therapist may decide that it’s time to progress even further, which may include viewing pictures or videos of snakes until you’re so accustomed to viewing the snake that you don’t see it as a threat. The main idea is that the more often you’re exposed to these fearful situations, the less you’ll be afraid of the snake. Regular exposure to the fear will help a person desensitize themselves. And this is something you can do yourself, too. The idea is that you need repeated exposure to the fearful thing and to continue confronting this fear until you’ve become so accustomed to the fear that it’s no longer a fear at all.
Your therapist will work with you the entire way to ensure that your fear is met in a responsible, safe manner. If your therapist is confident in your progress, they may even ask you to confront a real snake. This snake will be a normal, safe snake that’s tame and not venomous. A person will only progress to this level after immense desensitization. This is the final step in the therapy progress wherein you’ve overcome the fear of even a real snake.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy works differently than other forms of therapy, and this may involve replacing all of your negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Think of it this way: you’ve been mentally trained to be fearful of snakes. If all you’ve seen are dreadful snake pictures, wouldn’t you think all snakes were dreadful?
In many cases, you would think that the snake was dreadful from the very cells in its body. A therapist will be the focal point of this therapy session, and the therapist will ask you to do the following:
- Discuss your fear of snakes
- Discuss the root cause of your fear
- Discuss how you feel when seeing a snake
The therapist will focus on all of your false beliefs and help you change these core beliefs to ones that work to ensure that you’re less fearful of snakes. For example, you may have fear that snakes all contain venom that will kill you in an instant. The therapist may point out that there is only one snake in the region that has venom, and it’s located in a zoo well out of your reach. The therapist may also mention that there are low numbers of deaths from snake bites per year. An overloading of true facts about a fear can often remove all of those negative beliefs that keep a person stuck in a series of perpetual fear and worry. When choosing this route, you’ll be committing to going to see a therapist several times over the course of months. You can expect a therapist to want to see you once per week for as many as ten months to try and develop strategies to overcome your fear. Cognitive behavioral therapy is about replacing fallacies with facts, but it also works to help you overcome your fear and anxiety in a healthier manner.
Psychotherapy may be used, too, at this time.
What’s neat is that every person has a form of internal dialogue with themselves talking themselves into their fears. I think you know what I mean. If you’ve ever been in a fearful situation, you may talk to yourself, mentioning how the snake is going to come after you. Then, you say “oh no, he is going to bite.” All of a sudden you envision this horrible event unfolding before your eyes that raises your blood pressure and makes you sick to your stomach. This is what cognitive behavioral therapy is based on.
There’s a reason why we fear snakes, and medications may be able to help a person deal with their fear and anxiety. Anti-anxiety medications can help, but a doctor may only prescribe this medication in severe cases. A person who only has a fear every few months is not likely to have to use medication to relax themselves. If you plan on going to a region where there are plenty of snakes roaming around, the therapist may recommend that you take medicine during your plans so that you can calm your fears and jitters.
Humans have likely been scared of snakes from the moment a human was attacked by a snake. It’s horrifying to think of a time when people lacking antivenin, were killed from a snake bite with no way of survival. Humans had to adapt to be aware of snakes, and this, to some extent, is the reason behind the human fear of snakes. We have evolved to be scared of snakes because they have the potential to strike, and most people don’t know how to tell if a snake is venomous or not. Imagine the anxiety of being attacked and not knowing if death is imminent.
That’s a fear I think everyone has to some extent.