Reptiles and amphibians. Along with insects, they are usually among the beings that generate the most discomfort to people. Given the dangerousness of some of these animals, it is to some extent logical that there is some fear of them, being something adaptive. Obviously, an encounter with a poisonous snake or a crocodile can be highly dangerous or even fatal.
But in some people, this fear is exaggerated and involves a real phobia towards most reptiles and amphibians that can limit their functioning: we are talking about those who suffer from an anxiety disorder known as herpetophobia .
Herpetophobia is defined as the phobia or panic towards most reptiles and some amphibians . This is one of the most frequent specific phobias worldwide, and is in fact the second most widespread phobia linked to animals, after arachnophobia.
Those who suffer from this phobia usually experience strong anxiety in the presence of reptiles and amphibians, which may be accompanied by physiological symptoms such as trembling, hyperactivity, excessive sweating, tachycardia and hyperventilation. Exposure to these beings can generate an anxiety crisis in which pain associated with heart attacks, depersonalization or the belief that one will die or go crazy, among other symptoms, appear. In some cases a temporary paralysis may even appear, due to the overactivation of the nervous system . In addition to fear, it is not strange that people with this phobia are also disgusted or repulsed by reptiles and amphibians.
Fear is not only aroused by the presence of these animals themselves, but also by situations or places where they might appear or by elements that announce their presence. For example, finding a snakeskin can cause people with this phobia a panic attack. It also often causes some feeling of discomfort the perception of undulating movements similar to those carried out by snakes and other reptiles . Although it is much less common, some people may also be afraid of products derived from them or reminiscent of them, such as clothes or accessories that look flaky or simulate the skin of a crocodile or snake.
Curiously, fear can be more or less selective: snakes, crocodiles and toads are usually some of the most frightening. However, other species do not usually trigger fear, such as turtles. As far as amphibians such as toads and frogs are concerned, the problem may be that they bear some resemblance to reptiles, in addition to the knowledge that many species are poisonous.
Herpetophobia and ophidiophobia: are they the same?
Herpetophobia has often been related to the fear of snakes, being considered as such the phobia of these beings. In this sense, it is often used as a synonym for ophidiophobia. But to assimilate one with the other is erroneous, there not being a complete overlap between both concepts.
Herpetophobia is, as we have said before, the fear of reptiles and some amphibians in general . Although this includes snakes (being also some of the creatures that generate the most panic in people with herpetophobia), it also includes other beings such as crocodiles, lizards, iguanas, frogs and toads (these last two amphibians). This is why ofidiophobia and herpetophobia, although closely linked, cannot be considered synonymous. Rather, we could say that herpetophobia would include ophidiophobia, the latter being much more specific.
Why does he show up?
The cause of this phobia is not fully known, but as with spiders and other creatures, one possible explanation is that the fear of reptiles is a product of the heritage of our ancestors, assuming a fear reaction to these beings an adaptive advantage by allowing our ancestors to react quickly by running away from them .
This possible inheritance would be activated by conditioning and learning throughout life: the knowledge of people who have died after being bitten by snakes, poisoned after touching certain types of frogs or devoured by crocodiles, or the fact of suffering some kind of attack by one of these creatures, facilitates the fear of them. Also, some of their characteristics, such as the high number of teeth of a crocodile or the easy vision of the fangs of a snake, can be disturbing in themselves.
Culture also plays a role in the acquisition of this panic: traditionally, in the West reptiles have been seen as dangerous creatures and have been given skills and related to evil, intrigue, pain and suffering. Even if we look at legends and children’s stories, we often find that the obstacle or danger to be overcome is a dragon or some kind of reptile. Even in religion: in Genesis the serpent is the representation of evil that tempts Eve to taste the forbidden apple. All this makes the vision of this type of animal something that awakens a sense of danger in many of us in the West.
On the contrary, in the East they are often seen as protective and benevolent entities. For example, tradition says that Buddha was protected by a Naga (demigods in the shape of a giant snake), and the image of Eastern dragons is that of wise and usually benevolent and powerful beings. This contributes to the level of panic that these beings provoke, although it exists because they are dangerous beings, is less.
Specific phobias, such as herpetophobia, can be treated in the field of psychology . It is also one of the most easily treated types of disorder and one in which there are usually fewer relapses.
Although it may be more or less hard for the patient, the most applied therapy in these cases is exposure therapy . Generally applied gradually, the patient will be exposed to anxiety-generating stimuli without the patient engaging in avoidance behaviour until the anxiety generated by them diminishes.
The issue of graduation is important, since too abrupt and poorly formulated exposure can in fact make the patient more sensitive and increase his or her fear. Thus, a hierarchy is established between patient and therapist in which the former will order different stimuli that provoke anxiety (linked to his fear of reptiles) and after that the exposure will be made from a point to be negotiated between professional and client.
One must also consider where the fear comes from: is the fear really of the animals themselves, of being poisoned, of dying, or of other aspects? Discussing what the figure of the reptiles means for the patient, why he or she considers that such fear exists and assessing also the meaning and sense that such fear may have for the patient is another aspect to work on.
In this particular phobia it is common that there are somewhat distorted beliefs about the dangerousness of most of these beings or the probability of finding them. Cognitive restructuring is in these cases very useful to elaborate an alternative vision. However, mere information is not enough: it is necessary to work on the subject also through the emotions triggered in the subject by the stimulus in question.