Snake phobia is a specific phobia, animal subtype, and is characterised by an irrational fear of snakes. It is important to make this distinction because, to be fearful of a poisonous snake which might kill you or make you very unwell, is a reasonable response to a potentially dangerous animal. In fact, there is a number of definitions which states clearly that, in order to make a diagnosis, the individual has to have an ‘irrational fear’ of ‘non-venomous snakes’ (see, for example, American Psychiatric Association, 2013). The other term for snake phobia is Ophidiophobia which comes from two Greek words – ‘ophis’, which means snake, and ‘phobia’ which means fear.
Individuals who suffer from snake phobia exhibit a great deal of avoidance behaviour. Some are unable to watch a film which includes snakes, and, in some instances, the person is unable even to say the word ‘snake’. Often, this has an effect on the patient’s quality of life: this may include not being able to read the newspaper for fear of finding a snake on one of the pages, or being unable to go on holiday to exotic places because of an overwhelming dread of coming across a snake.
How is it treated?
The best way to treat any phobia is to use behaviour therapy – specifically, systematic desensitization (Wolpe, 1958). In order to do this, the psychotherapist works closely with the patient or client in order to devise a hierarchy of potentially anxiety-provoking situations involving a snake. The idea is to start with easy situations and to work towards more difficult ones. Normally, both the psychotherapist and the patient work through these scenarios over a period of 5-6 sessions. The patient gradually becomes more and more desensitized to the phobic stimulus. The psychotherapist will also ‘pair’ relaxation with the phobic stimulus (Davison, 1968; Bandura, 1977; Kraft & Kraft, 2010) so that, each time the client thinks of a snake, he feels more relaxed. The pairing work and the systematic desensitization are done in hypnosis. This is important because the hypnotherapy provides the platform in which the client can effect change in the shortest time possible; it also helps him to realize his full potential.
In some situations, however, it is important to look at the source of the problem. If the patient finds that the behaviour therapy is taking too long or that only a little progress has been made, it is important to use uncovering techniques (Brann, 2012) to look at the symbolic meaning of the snake phobia. The snake often represents a childhood event and, by pinpointing the symbolic meaning, the patient is able to gain an insight into the unconscious mechanisms behind the phobic anxiety, with the effect that it reduces the fear response still further.
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