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Fear of snakes is so common that people who rarely come into contact with the carnivorous reptiles can suffer from the phobia. In extreme situations when the phobia is particularly powerful, phobics daren't leave their house in case they come across a snake. Fortunately there are a number of tried and tested techniques for overcoming fear of snakes.
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Diagnosing the Cause of Fear
The first step in overcoming a fear of snakes is to determine precisely what the person is afraid of according to Casebook in Abnormal Psychology (Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2009.) The fear may appear to be of snakes, but it could also be of something else. For example, the patient may actually be afraid of any germs that could be on the snake’s skin or in its mouth. If the patient is treated for one phobia but is actually suffering from another, then therapy may be ineffective. In the example just mentioned therapy would concentrate on treating a fear of germs not a fear of snakes. If a patient seems to relapse, then it's back to the beginning and talking about snakes.
If the fear is definitely snakes, then the therapist will try to determine what it is about them that scares the individual. Is it their slithering motion? Or is it their bites (even though most snakes are non-venomous)?
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A patient with a phobia of snakes is gradually exposed to the animals over the course of a few weeks or months. The first session may be just involve talking about snakes and looking at photographs of them. The second may be lightly touching or holding a toy snake, hopefully without experiencing an anxiety attack or running out of the room. Other exercises could include watching a video of snakes, playing with a stuffed snake or reading a book about snakes. These small steps, called systematic desensitization, help to replace bad memories (snakes causing fear) with good memories (snakes causing relaxation or curiosity.)
The end goal would be to pet a live non-venomous snake such as a ball python. Patients scared to walk in parks or wooded areas for fear of snakes could then venture into these areas without crippling fear. Patients respond differently as to how many sessions they need and whether they require anti-anxiety medications as well.
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In between therapy sessions, a patient will also be encouraged to try exercises to help reduce symptoms of anxiety or panic. These exercises may take weeks or months before the patient shows any significant improvement. A fear of snakes could have taken years to develop and expecting it to go away overnight is unrealistic.
Each therapist has their favored home exercises, but some include sitting down, closing the eyes and taking ten deep, easy breaths, saying, "Snake" with each exhale. Another is to sit down, think of snakes, and clench the body’s muscles for ten seconds and then relax and think of a snake while relaxed.
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Johnston, Joni E. Psy.D. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Controlling Anxiety. Alpha Books; 2006.
Brown, Timothy A, et al. Casebook in Abnormal Psychology. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning; 2009.
HelpGuide.org: “Phobias and Fears: Symptoms, Treatment and Self-Help." http://helpguide.org/mental/phobia_symptoms_types_treatment.htm