Ophidiophobia: The Fear of Snakes
I think of snakes ‘Kaa’ from the Jungle Book leaps out at me. He’s a cartoon character in a children’s movie, yet terrifying and menacing. Or I think about Cobra’s, Python’s, and Boa Constrictors—all snakes with the power to be lethal. There are also snakes that are harmless to humans, such as Garter snakes. However, no snake is harmless for those suffering from ophidiophobia—just a glimpse of any snake can elicit sheer terror.
Ophidiophobia (pronounced [Oh-fid-ee-oh foh-bee-uh]) can be defined as the abnormal or irrational fear of snakes. Though not specifically designated in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), Ophidiophobia is usually grouped under diagnosis F40.218—Other Animal Type Phobia.
If you’re afraid of snakes, guess what? You’re not alone.
- According to YouGov, 64% of American adults are afraid of snakes, and 32% fall into the ‘very afraid’ category
- YouGov also noted that 79% of adults 65 and older were afraid of snakes.
- A Gallup Poll showed that 62% of the women in their study were afraid of snakes compared to only 38% of men
Why are People Afraid of Snakes?
An Innate Fear of Snakes
The Max Planck Institute in Germany hypothesized that we are born with an innate fear of the slithering creatures. It makes sense, right? They are dangerous & one could reasonably think that it’s hardwired into our genetics to shy away from something potentially harmful. Their study showed that a baby’s eyes dilate more at the sight of snakes versus something more tranquil such as a flower. Dilation of the eyes can be closely associated with stress, AKA fear. Boom. Theory proven.
Well, hold on a second—not all experts agree. Rutgers University conducted another study where infants under a year old watched videos of snakes who either spoke with either a scary voice or a happy one. Children paid more attention to the snakes with the fearful voice and when startled did not show accelerated heart rates. They were not scared. They were actually quite interested in snakes. This interest combined with an innate ability to quickly sense a snake’s movement could be the factor leading to fear.
Conditioned to be Afraid
In all likelihood, the ability to quickly spot a snake’s movement combined with curiosity plays a role. For example, a child playing outside sees a snake and becomes infatuated with it and reaches out to touch the creature. The snake, in an effort to protect itself, hisses at the child or even lashes out and manages to bite. One negative situation such as this can be painful and fear-inducing–forever associating a snake with fear.
Perhaps you grew up in a region of the world where there are lethal snakes. In this scenario, your parents likely will show fear in response to the sight of a snake and snatch you away. You would learn that you too should fear them. You would be taught to run away if you saw snakes because they had the potential to seriously harm you.
So how do you know if you have a rational fear of snakes, or an abnormal response? Here are some symptoms:
- The inability to participate in outdoor activities for fear of coming across a snake
- The inability to enter a pet store or zoo for fear of seeing a snake
- Intense fear and dread simply coming across a photo of a snake, or seeing one in a movie
- Physical symptoms such as increased heart-rate, shortness of breath, sweating, nausea and vomiting, and full-blown panic attacks can be indicators
Snakes in the Movies
Snakes are usually portrayed in movies as terrifying and dangerous creatures, even in the children’s movie I mentioned earlier, The Jungle Book. Portraying snakes as creatures to be afraid can propagate fear to the general public. Other movies featuring characters afraid of or impacted by snakes include:
- Indiana Jones: Jones, shown in the video above, falls into a train car full of snakes as a teenager and is tortured with a fear of them from there on out.
- Snakes on a Plane: Someone releases snakes on a plane with the intent to kill a witness testifying against the mob. A fight to kill the snakes ensues.
- Anaconda: A film crew is looking for a forgotten Amazonian Tribe in the depths of the jungle. The stumble upon someone who agrees to help them, but he’s actually in search of a rare anaconda worth a fortune. But the snake begins to pick them off, one-by-one.
- Python: a Military plane crashes in a city where a killer python goes on a killing spree.
Snakes in the News
Movies aren’t the only media outlet depicting snakes in a fearful manner. Snake attacks are a fact of life, and the more newsworthy occurrences are covered in the media. To highlight just a few:
In October 2017 in Indonesia, a giant python nearly bit off the arm of a security guard trying to remove it from a roadway. It was captured and killed, and measured over 25 feet long.
A 19 year-old snake wrangler in Australia was recently bitten by his pet Inland Taipan, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. He was rushed to the hospital and remains there in serious condition, battling the snake venom in the intensive care unit.
A man in North Carolina accidently encountered some Copperhead snakes that were mating. His interruption caused hem to strike out, biting him repeatedly. His gut reaction was to kill them before calling 911 to care for his wounds.
So how do you overcome an abnormal fear of snakes? Here are some suggestions:
1. Do your research: learn what snakes in your area may be hazardous — learn what they look like, their temperament, and where they are typically found. Stay away from them. But also learn about the snakes that are harmless and that you shouldn’t fear contact with.
2. Learn first aid so that if you were to encounter a snake, you are armed with the knowledge of how to treat a bite. Recognize that medicine is advanced and the majority of the time snake bites are completely treatable.
3. Expose yourself to snakes that are harmless. Look at photos of them until you no longer recoil in fear. Go to a pet store and look at them in enclosed spaces where they cannot touch you. Go to an exhibit at a zoo.
4. Some zoos offer interactive programs where you can touch or hold a snake under supervision of a trained professional. You can work up to approaching the object of your fear, and eventually simply touch it.
For more advanced treatment for Ophidiophobia, counseling is the best option to get personalized treatment. You should be able to find a qualified professional by searching online.
*Disclaimer: Please know that there are dangerous and venomous snakes found worldwide. It is very rare to be bitten or hurt by a snake. However, a healthy fear of snakes and the knowledge that you should give them space is recommended. This article is addressing an unhealthy, abnormal fear of snakes.
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