Spider Phobics Hold Big, Hairy Tarantula, Florence

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Spider Phobia Cured Through Exposure Therapy

Researchers used hierarchical steps to introduce patients to the feared object, first in photos of different spiders and then approaching a live one.

"We would begin 10 feet away from the spider in a terrarium with the top closed," said Hauner. "For all of them, that was the most difficult part of the study. They had no idea what to expect at that point -- for some it was the first time they had ever looked at a spider."

Subjects were encouraged to move closer, as Hauner educated them about spiders -- Florence was not venomous, in fact she was afraid of humans. And they don't jump around erratically, but defensively hunker down when people approach them.

"They thought the tarantula might be capable of jumping out of the cage and on to them," she said. "Some thought the tarantula was capable of planning something evil to purposefully hurt them. I would teach them the tarantula is fragile and more interested in trying to hide herself. "

B.D. and others learned spiders were practically blind creatures, not aggressive at all. If dropped from four feet, they die.

"After seeing so many photos of terrible spiders, I was emboldened enough to approach the a whole two feet closer to the Dread Cage, meaning that I got within eight feet before my fear level went up ?" writes B.D.

Eventually the phobics touched the glass wall of the terrarium, then the tarantula itself, first with a paintbrush and then with their hands.

"They learned the spider was predictable and controllable," said Hauner. "That's when the major change takes place. And they are totally amazed at the end."

Slowly, by exposing subjects like B.D. to the creature, researchers normalized the experience for them. For some, it was a pleasant experience.

"And so," writes B.D., "I was fascinated to learn that Florence, at least, was beautiful. She had so much hair, that, really she could be called fluffy, and it was the same color as my mother's cat."

B.D.'s motivation was "key" to his success, according to researcher Hauner. "Most came have faith in the therapy -- knowing it was worth it."

One subject wrote a thank you note to Hauner from Europe, because she was able to enjoy travel again. "Their worst nightmare ended up being something very exciting and amazing to overcome," she said.

As for B.D., he writes that he is still "nervous" about spiders, but that has been decreasing over time, especially because he is "no longer so terrified of them."

"I'm very proud of myself for doing this," said B.D. "I had originally conceived of it as being like an extreme sport, or like a ritual test of courage, an ordeal."

But now, he has pledged to get a tattoo of the arachnid -- "so that I'll always have something to remember it by."

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