Hypnotherapy - How I conquered my lifelong fear of spiders in just one hour

The Mail - 29 August 2012

The moment I knew my spider phobia was out of control was when I turned down a friend’s invitation to Australia purely because I was terrified about coming into contact with huge arachnids.

I’ve always loathed creepy-crawlies — as a child I tried to sleep under the bed to avoid spiders dropping on me from the ceiling. I can’t even comfortably look at a photo of one. In fact, even writing the word ‘spider’ gives me goose pimples. And I am not alone. It’s estimated that in Western societies, as many as 55 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men feel some degree of arachnophobia. In the UK it’s the most common phobia.

Scientists think it may have an evolutionary basis — avoiding potentially venomous spiders would have been a useful instinct for our ancestors. However, in the 21st century, it would be much more beneficial if I was terrified of crisps.

Yet every encounter I’ve had with the eight-legged freaks is seared into my mind. There was the time I was in the bath and a spider ran along the bathroom shelf — I screamed so much that it lost its bearings and fell in, too. I ran hysterically out of the room in the nude.

Another time, a bereaved friend phoned me for consolation when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a great hairy thing tiptoeing across the floor. I dropped the phone on my sobbing friend and emitted a series of ear-splitting shrieks. Even now, after 40 years of living with the spider fear, I have to holler for my young daughter to rescue me with a glass and a sheet of paper whenever I see even the smallest creepy-crawly.

Over the years, I’ve wondered about getting myself cured. London Zoo offer a ‘friendly spider’ programme, involving group hypnosis aimed at desensitising arachnophobics. But I’ve always been too scared to sign up. So, instead, I decided to seek help from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) expert David Shephard, who claims to be able to cure any phobia in just one-to-two hours.

At the Performance Partnership offices in South-west London, David, 49, uses NLP, which he explains as a series of techniques that enable you to take control of your brain to dispel irrational fears.

A tall blond man who reminds me of Frank Spencer, David first became interested in NLP, a controversial therapy invented in the Seventies, when he used it to rid himself of his phobia of bees and wasps. You are more likely to be killed by a champagne cork than a poisonous spider You are more likely to be killed by a champagne cork than a poisonous spider He is so convinced NLP is going to work, he has allowed a tarantula into his office for me to hold after our chat. Only under general anaesthetic, I think.

First, he analyses my fear: am I frightened of an image or of the real thing? What if the spider was wearing stilettos or offering me flowers? He’s laughing, but I’m feeling panicky even talking about it. We move on to the second stage of the NLP: timeline therapy.

David explains that my unconscious mind knows exactly when my phobia began. He is going to ask questions, and I must answer with the first thing that comes into my head, no matter how silly. Then he tells me to shut my eyes and imagine a timeline running from my past to my future. I must float above that timeline, looking down on myself. When did my phobia start, asks David. ‘In the womb!’ I blurt out. Aaargh! Now I have to imagine myself as a three-month-old foetus, experiencing that first event that gave me a spider phobia. Did a spider startle my mother? I have no idea. The process seems utterly ludicrous to me.

‘I have to realise that nothing bad happened. It is OK. There is no need to feel horrible,’ I hear myself say. Do I really believe this or am I saying what I think he wants to hear? It’s hard to tell. ‘So what will you feel, instead?’ ‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I’ll just get on with it.’ And at that moment, I feel a sense of release.

Now I must float along my timeline, releasing my emotions about spiders along the way. I think about the spider in the bath and I feel sorry for it. The process has taken only an hour. But I have to admit that it seems to have made a difference. Rosie, a Chilean rose tarantula who’s starred in the film Nanny McPhee, has been brought in by zoologist Mark Amey.

A large part of my fear about spiders stems from their unpredictability, but Mark insists Rosie will not be scuttling up my arm. However, I am less reassured when Mark unpacks his anti-venom kit in case she sinks her fangs into me. Nervously, I peek into the box. Rosie is fluffy and greyish-brown, like a mouse. Her legs end in dainty black tips that look like ballet pumps. The centre of her body is a pinky-bronze.

To my amazement, I feel I would like to stroke her. I approach with a nervous forefinger and find the fur on her back is thistledown-soft. She gently dips her fat bottom, but otherwise she doesn’t move. So far, so good. But then Mark puts her on the table. She starts to advance in my direction. My hands shake, sweat breaks out on my face and I battle an overwhelming desire to take a giant leap out of the room.

After a bit of persuading, I allow her to sit on my leg. Then she poses happily on my shirt. Finally, she is put into my hand. A gentle weight descends. I shut my eyes tight and start to hyperventilate. ‘Remember to breathe,’ says David. I open my eyes and look down. There is Rosie, crouching on my palm. I have done it!

At home, I test myself on a garden spider. The revulsion has gone. I feel indifferent to it. I still won’t be keeping any as pets, but at least we can co-exist. And if any more fall into my bath, I’ll do my best to rescue them — not scream the house down.

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