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Help: 'I have a fear of snakes'

Asked by Mary, Pennsylvania

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I have a fear of snakes that is making my life miserable. I saw two in my yard and ever since cannot focus. I am afraid to go out. I look under my covers before I go to sleep at night. I run to my car to go to work and I don't want to come home knowing a snake might be outside. This is really interfering with my daily life. It is ruining me.

Expert Bio Picture

Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert Answer

Dear Mary,

I am really sorry to hear of your difficulties. You have one of the most classic cases possible of what psychiatrists call "Specific Phobia."

The official diagnostic language says that this condition is defined by 1.) a marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation; 2.) that exposure to the phobic stimulus almost invariably provokes an immediate anxiety response; 3) that the person recognizes that the fear is excessive or unreasonable; and 4.) that the avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared situation(s) interferes significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.

Even from your brief description it is clear you qualify on all counts.

Even though your fear of snakes qualifies as a psychiatric condition, you should know that some degree of "snake fear" is one of the deepest anxieties in humans everywhere, and not just in humans but in other primates as well. There are fascinating experiments on monkeys showing that it's easier to induce a fear of snakes than anything else.

Clearly we evolved this fear because so many snakes are indeed dangerous and best avoided. The phrase best avoided usually is followed with "at all costs," but clearly you are living proof that this last part isn't true. The cost of being truly phobic -- even about potentially dangerous things -- can be so high as to ruin a life -- as you point out.

I really want to recommend that you do the legwork to find a therapist who specializes in a type of therapy called "systematic desensitization" or "exposure therapy."

This treatment involves gradually exposing someone to the thing they fear, first in imagination, usually, and then gradually in reality. This exposure is combined with strategies to help the patient challenge and control their unrealistic negative thoughts and emotions.

Amazingly, this simple treatment intervention is one of the most effective treatments in all of psychiatry. It is estimated to work more than 75 percent of the time.

You are lucky that such an effective intervention is available. The odds are very high that if you make a commitment to getting this help you will get your life back and will be able to get back to walking, instead of running, to your car.

For more information on phobias, check out this recent CNN.com article.

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