If simply the thought of a spider makes your skin crawl, read on. A team of researchers from the United Kingdom suggests a new strategy that may help people to overcome their fear of the eight-legged critters.

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Researchers suggest that having control over spider exposure may benefit patients with arachnophobia.

The strategy is based on a model of behavior called perceptual control theory (PCT), which focuses on encouraging an individual to be in control of their own experiences in order to deal with perceived threats.

In the new study, researchers asked participants with a strong fear of spiders to engage in a PCT-based intervention, in which they were in control of their exposure to a variety of spider images, as opposed to being told to “face their fear.”

The research team – including Dr. Warren Mansell of the University of Manchester in the U.K. – found that these participants were less likely to avoid spiders in their day-to-day lives following the intervention.

Dr. Mansell and colleagues recently reported their findings in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

A fear of spiders, or arachnophobia, is the third most common phobia in the United States, affecting more than 30 percent of the population.

Few of us can say that we like spiders, but for people with arachnophobia, being near them can trigger feelings of intense anxiety. In the most severe cases, individuals may avoid leaving the house out of fear of coming into contact with a spider.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common treatments for arachnophobia, which focuses on addressing the thought patterns that might be fueling the phobia.

CBT for arachnophobia may also involve directing the patient to “face their fear” and initiate contact with spiders, though the new research from Dr. Mansell and colleagues suggests that a PCT-based approach might be more effective.

“Perceptual control theory predicts that it is vital for a client to have control over their experience of important elements of the environment like the sources of threat, because control itself is pivotal for health and well-being,” says Dr. Mansell.

The researchers tested the PCT theory on 96 adults of an average age of 22 years who had a fear of spiders. A clinical level of phobia was identified in 28 percent of the subjects.

Some of the participants engaged in a PCT-based experiment, whereby subjects were told that they could move computer images of spiders closer to them or further away using a joystick. Other participants – the controls – were instructed which way to move the joystick.

The team found that participants who completed the PCT-based task were willing to get closer to a real spider after the experiment, compared with those in the control group.

Furthermore, over the following 2 weeks, subjects who engaged in the PCT-based experiment reported lower avoidance of spiders in their everyday lives, compared with the controls.

Dr. Mansell believes that the findings suggest that therapists might not need to encourage patients with phobias to face their fears.

Once people are made aware of their mixed motives, they may make choices that address their fears quite naturally. In future we need to see whether this kind of simple intervention can make a lasting difference to the distress and disruption phobias can have in people’s lives.”

Dr. Warren Mansell

Learn how people with arachnophobia might overestimate the size of spiders.