Snake Phobia Behavioral (Exposure) Therapy (2023)



>>Narrator:, Meet, 22-year-old, Mariam, Dum from Venezuela, clinical psychologist, Lars-Göran Öst from Sweden, and Elf.

He’s, an American corn, snake., This multinational threesome is working together.

Mariam helps out when Elf gets tangled in Öst’s belt, loops, and Öst helps Mariam put Elf around her neck.

The picture looks simple enough.

Unless you go back in time, just three hours ago, as Mariam was preparing to meet Elf for the first time.


[Crying] >>Narrator: Mariam has a specific phobia-- a fear of snakes.

Other specific phobias include claustrophobia and a fear of flying and thunder.

Mariam’s had almost no contact with snakes.

And doesn’t know why she’s afraid.

>>Mariam: Since, I, remember, myself, I, remember being afraid of snakes.

>>Narrator: She has trouble with movies.

>>Mariam: I have to close.

My eyes, always., >>Narrator:, At, the zoo.

>>Mariam:, It’s, impossible., >>Narrator:, And.

It interferes with her life.

>>Mariam:, I have dreams of snakes., It's, horrible., I think, I like [inaudible], without, and there's snakes in some other things.

>>Narrator: Mariam is a research technician here at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related.


Psychologist, David Barlow, is director of the center and a pioneer in exposure.


His research demonstrates the outstanding success, that’s been achieved in treating phobias in a very brief time.


Just, one week., Some.

Psychologists at the center use virtual reality to gradually introduce a patient to a feared situation., But, Öst, bypasses, all that.

He treats specific phobias in just three hours.

>>Barlow: What.

He’s done though, over the years, and he leads .



in some way.

He leads the world in this .



is stripted .


strip the program down to its essence.

>>Narrator: Barlow invited Öst from Sweden to demonstrate brief exposure, therapy.

>>Barlow: In, the hopes that we will be better able to apply it here in the United States.

>>Narrator:, And Mariam has agreed to be treated in front of her colleagues.

Exposure therapy requires that patients gain experience with the feared object.

>>Barlow: Unless.

One is willing to experience one’s own negative emotions, and expose them as not dangerous and overwhelming or threatening.

Then they probably will not be able to overcome their anxiety and phobia.

>>Narrator: But.

Some say this intense exposure is cruel., >>Öst:, I, disagree completely, because everything we do in the treatment is decided by the patient.


It is within this time limit.

A very gradual approach., >>Barlow: There are surprisingly few people, given the suffering that they have endured, up until this point, who aren’t willing to take that plunge and see if they can overcome it.

>>Öst: People have this idea that you suddenly pick out the animal and throw it in the lab toward the patient.

That will never happen.

>>Narrator:, It’s, teamwork., Öst interviews, Mariam for 45 minutes, and then describes and prepares her for treatment in an additional 15 minutes., >>Öst:, So I will challenge you to try things.

But I will never force you to do anything that .

., ., >>Narrator:, It’s critical to determine Mariam’s worst, fear, what's called her catastrophic.


Her catastrophic belief is that if a snake is loose, and she can’t escape, she’ll have heart failure.

>>Öst: How.

Certain are you then, that you might die as a consequence of that interaction? >>Mariam:, Maybe, 70, percent., >>Öst:, Seventy, percent., Okay., >>Narrator:, No.

One has ever died or become ill.

Either with Öst’s or Barlow’s, treatment., But, Mariam believes, her anxiety, won’t diminish, and she’ll escape.

>>Mariam: They can run away from the room.

>>Öst:, The, strong belief in the catastrophe.

That is what’s driving the avoidance behavior.

And the avoidance behavior is the direct maintaining factor for the phobia.

>>Narrator: But.

If Mariam doesn’t escape, Öst predicts her anxiety, ., ., ., >>Öst:, Will, then gradually diminish as we go along in the treatment.

>>Narrator: An important way.

There can be cognitive changes., >>Öst:, To.

Help you get new information about that catastrophic belief.

>>Narrator: Öst does not prepare patients with relaxation or deep.


>>Öst:, I.

Don’t think it’s necessary at all.

>>Barlow: What.

We discovered through systematic research evaluating this component, that patients receiving these skills, were trained in these skills, who then used them to cope with their anxiety or fear actually did not do as well.

>>Narrator: Deep, breathing masks anxiety.

And the patient doesn’t learn anxiety.

Isn’t dangerous.

Here is will be used only if Mariam hyperventilates.

Just prior to exposure.

She rates her anxiety on a scale of 0 to 100.

>>Mariam: Seventy or 80., >>Narrator: Now.

It’s time to go get the snake.

Mariam’s anxiety.


>>Öst: I can stand with my back towards you.

If you want to., >>Mariam:, Okay., [Crying], >>Öst:, And, then I can .

., ., >>Mariam:, Wait., Can, I, close.

My eyes? >>Öst: And.

Then I can gradually turn.

>>Mariam: [Crying]., >>Öst: Standing here.

Now, with my back towards you., >>Narrator: Öst does that for two minutes.

What is Mariam.

Thinking? >>Mariam: It was horrible.

I felt like I was going to leave the room.

and that it was.

You know, stronger than me.

>>Narrator: And.

What was Öst thinking about her reaction?, >>Öst:, It's, maybe not the strongest I’ve seen.

But up there among the 25 percent strongest.

>>Narrator: But.

He knows that initial anxiety is not the best predictor of success.

It’s, a motivation to succeed.


Lets him turn around after three, minutes., >>Mariam:, Okay., I’m going to close.

My eyes.

Okay?, But.

Don’t count.

>>, Öst:, No., >>Öst:, You’re doing good.

Elf's tried to watch it.

It’s in my hands.

>>Narrator: She looks for the first time.

>>Öst: That’s.

The only way you are going to get new knowledge., >>Mariam:, Okay, [Crying], >>Öst:, It’s, completely peaceful., >>Narrator:, She stands and smiles as her anxiety level.

Comes down.

>>Mariam:, Fifty., >>Narrator:, She’s, learning., >>Öst:, But.

If you stay exposed to the situation long, enough, you see that the anxiety level goes down.

>>Narrator:, She.

Lets him enter after eight, minutes.

She realizes that her catastrophic belief can’t occur unless Öst releases the snake.

>>Öst: I’m, not doing that.

>>Narrator:, After, 15 minutes, Öst sits down., Some anxiety, returns., >>, Öst: Try to breathe, slowly and calmly.

And with your stomach.

>>Narrator: She, calms down., >>Öst: So.

What about a name for it? >>Öst: And? Where are you going?? >>Mariam:, I’m going to move here.? >>, Öst:, Okay., What.

Do you think it feels like?? >>Mariam: This is a .



It’s a nice snake.


Her anxiety is down.

>>Öst:, Perfect., Great., You're sitting about.

What is this? Three meters, away?, >>Narrator:, She, decides to approach.

>>Mariam:, Okay.

I’m going to approach you.

I’m going to approach you., >>Öst:, Yeah?, Good., >>Mariam:, But, hold it [Chuckles].

>>Öst:, Yeah?, >>Narrator:, What, psychological principles might account for the improvement.

So far?, >>Öst: It might be that you have a happy situation going on, which leads to extinction of the anxiety.


You could say that the confidence is increasing.

specific [inaudible] ideas.

Come in to play here from a committed, point-of-view.


Think what is happening here is that the patient is, with the help of the therapist, accepting to take in new information.

>>Narrator: There is also positive reinforcement in modeling.

What’s Öst’s assessment so far?, >>Öst: Deep in my mind, I know, it’s going to work.

That means that I don’t have to be impatient.

I can be calm.

>>Narrator: Certainly.

His research supports his confidence.

Across, several types of specific phobias.

Even with children, Öst’s research shows over 80 percent improvement, compared with controlled groups.

And the results are maintained at a one-year followup.

>>Barlow: Well.

The research is actually very, very strong.

I’m going to say, surprisingly, strong, when you consider the kind of traumatic nature of the intense approach., >>Narrator: It’s close to one hour now.

And she decides to name the snake.

>>Mariam:, Maybe, Elf., >>Öst:, Elf!, >>Mariam:, Yeah., >>, Öst:, Okay., Elf., That’s, a nice name.


Would it feel like touching it? >>Mariam: I’m thinking about it., >>Öst:, Yeah?, >>Narrator:, After, an hour.

She touches Elf., >>Öst:, Good., Did.

You touch it?, >>Mariam:, A, little bit., >>Öst:, A, little bit., Yeah., >>Mariam:, I, can’t believe I’m touching a snake.

>>Öst: You are touching the snake.

>>Narrator: Progress is very uneven throughout the afternoon.

But it provides an opportunity to challenge the catastrophic belief.

>>Öst:, No., And.

You died.

>>Mariam:, No., >>, Öst:, Nooo., You, survived!, Great!.

>>Narrator: Elf is placed on Mariam’s.



Again, progress is uneven.

Elf’s on her lap.

Now, alone.

>>Mariam: One, more time., >>Öst:, One, more time?, >>Narrator:, And, finally.

It’s time to test Mariam’s catastrophic belief, but Elf’s more interested in the radiator and warmth.

>>Öst: The snake.

It didn’t do a lot of things that she predicted.

It would do.

>>Narrator: What about Mariam’s catastrophic belief?, >>Öst:, Is.

It down to 0? >>Mariam:, Yes., >>Öst:, Good., >>Narrator:, Now.

It’s time to pose.

>>Mariam:, A, picture., [Laughter], >>Narrator:, And, then, help untangle Elf.

As for her anxiety.


., ., >>Mariam:, Yeah., And at the end.

When I was helping him, with the .



It was zero.

That impressed me.

The last part, really, that I was able to do that.

>>Narrator: There was time for some celebration and congratulations.

>>Barlow: Did.

You really think you could deal with it.

This way? >>Mariam:, No., >>Narrator:, And reflect on implications for treatment.

>>Barlow: We have no reason to believe that the three-hour program would be any less effective than the one-week program.


Then it becomes an issue.


You know.

What would the patient choose? There are many patients who really don’t have the time to take a week out of their lives.

>>Narrator: The recommendation is that Mariam engage in maintenance.

Watch nature films, go to the park.

And the zoo.

>>Mariam: If I, see a snake on the street, at least I’m going to be able to see it and walk and not see it and run.

>>Narrator: And, two months after treatment, we spoke with Mariam by phone.

[Mariam speaking].


What is the best therapy for fear of snakes? ›

Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy, sometimes called desensitization, helps you gradually confront your fears. You're exposed to the idea of snakes over time in a controlled environment. For example, exposure therapy may start with something less scary, like a picture of a cartoon snake.

How effective is exposure therapy for phobias? ›

The exposure to the feared objects, activities or situations in a safe environment helps reduce fear and decrease avoidance. Exposure therapy has been scientifically demonstrated to be a helpful treatment or treatment component for a range of problems, including: Phobias. Panic Disorder.

When is exposure therapy not recommended? ›

Instances where exposure therapy is not usually recommended can include: Individuals who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Individuals with a psychotic disorder. Individuals experiencing dissociation.

How do you help someone with Ophidiophobia? ›

What is the treatment for ophidiophobia?
  1. Exposure therapy. This form of talk therapy, also called systematic desensitization, is what it sounds like: You're exposed to the thing you fear in a nonthreatening and safe environment. ...
  2. Cognitive behavioral therapy. ...
  3. Medication.
Nov 12, 2019

Why do humans fear snakes so much? ›

Why? It's possible that it's hardwired, an evolutionary advantage given to those who avoided dangerous animals. On the other hand, some studies have suggested the fear is learned from our parents. Regardless, snakes play an important role in the ecosystem, and they have a lot to offer us humans.

Is snake therapy a thing? ›

It takes a brave heart to enjoy all the benefits that the therapy offers. Snakes crawl across the patient's body, especially in those zones with the most tension, and help eliminate the accumulated stress, leading the patient to a new state of relaxation. Of course, not every type of snake can give such massages.

How long does it take exposure therapy to work? ›

PE usually takes 8-15 weekly sessions, so treatment lasts about 3 months. Sessions are 1.5 hours each. You may start to feel better after a few sessions. And the benefits of PE often last long after your final session with your provider.

Does exposure therapy really work? ›

People who are struggling with PTSD and anxiety disorders can significantly benefit from exposure therapy. In studies on PTSD patients and exposure therapy, up to 90% of participants found either significant relief or moderate relief from their symptoms.

Why might exposure therapy not work? ›

Limitations of Exposure Therapy

Some professionals believe that exposure therapy may make symptoms worse, especially when dealing with PTSD. Additionally, exposure therapy is difficult work that causes people to feel and confront things that they have worked hard to avoid.

Why is exposure therapy not used? ›

Besides clients' reluctance, therapists may also have additional barriers to the implementation of exposure therapy. They may fear that exposure might harm their clients (lead to cognitive decompensation, symptom exacerbation, and physical harm) or they might drop-out of treatment.

How many sessions are needed for exposure therapy? ›

Using PE to Treat PTSD

Prolonged exposure is typically provided over a period of about three months with weekly individual sessions, resulting in eight to 15 sessions overall.

How common is snake phobia? ›

The most common fear – one shared by nearly one in three U.S. adult citizens – is of snakes.

Is fear of snakes genetic? ›

Developmental psychologist Stefanie Hoehl is the lead researcher on a new study that suggests fear of spiders and snakes is genetic.

How do I get over my fear of reptiles? ›

These are:
  1. Exposure therapy. Your therapist will slowly increase your exposure to reptiles. ...
  2. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Often used along with exposure therapy, the aim of CBT is to help identify and reshape negative thought patterns and emotions that contribute to your fear of reptiles.
Jan 12, 2021

What is an unrealistic fear of snakes? ›

Ophidiophobia is a type of specific phobia. A specific phobia is a lasting, overwhelming and unreasonable fear of a specific object, situation, activity or person; in this situation, an overwhelming fear of snakes.

Why not to fear snakes? ›

They can be intimidating, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that you are so much larger,” he says. “They're just little animals, and they've got their own lives going on. They're fascinating creatures with a lot of mysteries left to reveal.” Create a haven for wildlife.

How much of the world is afraid of snakes? ›

Research shows that approximately half of the population feel “anxious” about snakes, and a whopping three percent of the population meet the diagnostic criteria for snake phobia (Polak et al., 2016). Is it their skin?

How do I get an emotional support snake? ›

How do I qualify? Many people qualify as emotionally disabled and don't even know it. To legally qualify for an Emotional Support Animal, you must be considered emotionally disabled by a licensed mental health professional (therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist, etc.).

Can snakes sense anxiety? ›

While it is certainly possible that your snake can sense your fear, it is unlikely to have many consequences for your relationship with your snake. Your snake may have a little more anxiety around you when you are fearful, but they are unlikely to become aggressive.

Are hypnotizing snakes real? ›

Snakes will hypnotize you

While certain snakes rock their head from side to side to help with their depth perception, they are not performing hypnosis. The origin of this myth may have come from observing prey species that freeze in place out of fear or go still to try to blend in when facing a snake.

What is the most effective exposure therapy? ›

Processing. The most common treatment that includes exposure is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A key element of CBT is talking about thoughts, fears, and feelings. I often find that simply talking through thoughts about a topic exposes people to their fears.

What are the 4 principles of exposure therapy? ›

There are 4 major theories that attempt to explain the psychological mechanisms of exposure therapy: habituation, extinction, emotional processing, and self-efficacy (Table 2).

What happens to the brain during exposure therapy? ›

Exposure therapy increases the number of perisomatic inhibitory synapses around fear neurons in the amygdala. This increase provides an explanation for how exposure therapy silences fear neurons. “The increase in number of perisomatic inhibitory synapses is a form of remodeling in the brain.

Does exposure therapy get easier? ›

Exposure therapy is similar. The sessions are sometimes difficult to go through, but if you visualize your end goal and keep at it, it will gradually get easier. Soon you will be able to live and move about with greater ease, without this fear getting in the way of your day-to-day life.

What are the three types of exposure therapy? ›

Are there different types of exposure therapies?
  • In vivo exposure. It involves facing your fear in real life. ...
  • Imaginal exposure. A thing or situation is imagined vividly. ...
  • Virtual reality exposure. ...
  • Interoceptive exposure.
Jun 21, 2021

Is exposure therapy permanent? ›

Unfortunately, the effects of exposure therapy are not permanent, and many people experience a relapse.

Is exposure therapy hard at first? ›

Exposure therapy starts with confronting items and situations that cause anxiety, but anxiety that you feel able to tolerate. After the first few times, you will find your anxiety does not climb as high and does not last as long. You will then move on to more difficult exposure exercises.

Is exposure therapy good for everyone? ›

Exposure therapy is appropriate for people with a specific fear or phobia they want to address, Serio explains. Many people with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can benefit from this type of therapy.

What percent of US adults are afraid of snakes? ›

Millions of people worldwide suffer from specific phobias. Almost any stimulus may trigger a phobic reaction, but snakes are among the most feared objects. Half of the population feel anxious about snakes and 2-3% meet the diagnostic criteria for snake phobia.

What celebrities have snake phobia? ›

Johnny Cash: Ophidiophobia–Fear of Snakes. And Aerophobia–Fear of Flying. Johhny Cash was an American singer, songwriter, and actor who possessed both a fear of snakes and a fear of flying. The fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia, and the fear of flying is known as aerophobia.

What is the rarest phobia? ›

1. Arachibutyrophobia (Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth) Arachibutyrophobia is the fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. While the phenomenon has happened to everyone at one point or another, people with arachibutyrophobia are extremely afraid of it.

Are humans hardwired to fear snakes? ›

In conclusion, the researchers attribute this fear of snakes and spiders to evolutionary origin—humans have an inherited stress reaction to these animals, which teaches us to view them as scary or dangerous.

Is fear of snakes nature or nurture? ›

The Origins Of Phobias For Snakes And Spiders

Research shows that it accounts for as much as a half of all animal phobias. But a fear of snakes isn't natural; it's learned, studies suggest.

What are the two fears we are born with? ›

We are born with only two innate fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. A 1960 study evaluated depth perception among 6- to14-month-old infants, as well as young animals.

Is a fear of snakes irrational? ›

Recap. Ophidiophobia is an irrational fear of snakes. It's one of the most common specific phobias. The fear of a phobia is out of proportion to the actual threat.

Can reptiles be traumatized? ›

Trauma is perhaps the most common cause in reptiles. Bites from prey, bites from dogs and cats, cuts from caging (glass, wire, screens, etc.) and combat with cagemates can all cause trauma that involves bleeding.

What is the longest word phobia? ›

Understanding the phobia can help you overcome it and live a fulfilling life. Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia is one of the longest words in the dictionary, and ironically, it means the fear of long words. It originally was referred to as Sesquipedalophobia but was changed at some point to sound more intimidating.

What do snakes fear most? ›

What are snakes afraid of? Snakes are afraid of anything they feel puts their life in danger, like any animal or human. Most commonly we see videos of snakes “attacking people” but if you look into this further. Within every video we see, a person has closed the distance to the snake, not the other way round.

What do snakes do when they sense fear? ›

Snakes May Respond to Your Fearful Behavior

When people are afraid, they tend to move more unpredictably, often with jerky motions. Your snake will certainly notice this kind of behavior. Fast movements and unpredictable behavior are often tied to predators.

What is the human natural fear of snakes? ›

According to researchers, this fear is ingrained in our brains. Many of us are fearful of snakes and spiders, whether they are or aren't poisonous or dangerous—why? Researchers say that this fear is deep-rooted, one we likely developed from ancestors that lived 40-60 million years ago.

Why you shouldn't be afraid of snakes? ›

They can be intimidating, but it's easy to lose sight of the fact that you are so much larger,” he says. “They're just little animals, and they've got their own lives going on. They're fascinating creatures with a lot of mysteries left to reveal.” Create a haven for wildlife.

What percentage of people are afraid of snakes? ›

Almost any stimulus may trigger a phobic reaction, but snakes are among the most feared objects. Half of the population feel anxious about snakes and 2-3% meet the diagnostic criteria for snake phobia. Despite such a high ratio, only one instrument is commonly used, the Snake Questionnaire (SNAQ).

What smell do snakes hate? ›

What Smell Do Snakes Hate? Strong and disrupting smells like sulfur, vinegar, cinnamon, smoke and spice, and foul, bitter, and ammonia-like scents are usually the most common and effective smells against snakes since they have a strong negative reaction to them.

What is the primal fear of snakes? ›

Ophidiophobia (or ophiophobia) is a particular type of specific phobia, the irrational fear of snakes. It is sometimes called by a more general term, herpetophobia, fear of reptiles. The word comes from the Greek words "ophis" (ὄφις), snake, and "phobia" (φοβία) meaning fear.

Are snakes more scared of you? ›

According to experts, the best thing to do if you come across any snake, whether it's venomous or not, is to keep a good distance. You should let them be because in most cases they're probably more afraid of you.

What do snakes think of humans? ›

Snakes are able to recognise and distinguish between humans and may recognise the scent of their owner as familiar or positive with time. However, snakes are unable to view humans as companions so cannot form a bond with their owner like other pets can.

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