Got Anxiety? The anatomy of a phobia (part 4) |

Got Anxiety? The anatomy of a phobia (part 4)

Editor’s Note

This is the second in a four-part series of columns from Barry Barmann about phobias.

Click here to read part one.

Click here to read part two.

Click here to read part three.

At one point in the classic movie “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy anxiously shouted the words seen within the title of this article.

Today, we are more likely to hear a woman scream, “spiders, rats and snakes, kill them!” The reason I made reference to a woman is because 70-80 percent of people with animal phobias are women.

Nearly 25 percent of the population reports having an animal phobia. In fact, most people state they are fearful around dogs, bees, snakes and rodents.

However, this type of reaction is typically not problematic, in that it does not interfere with one’s daily activities. Such individuals would not be diagnosed as animal phobic.

“If a person fears spiders, and finds oneself in an old dusty attic, they will instantly begin scanning the area for any sign of spiders (spider webs), or something that may be misinterpreted as a spider, such as a black dot of paint on the wall.”

The term “Animal Phobia” is referred to by the American Psychiatric Association (2014) as a Specific Phobia, involving an excessive and unrealistic fear of a particular animal; a reaction which is out of proportion to the actual risk involved when needing to interact with a particular animal.

Those who have an animal phobia typically display three primary symptoms: (1) panic when in the presence of the feared animal, (2) excessive avoidance behaviors, and (3) thinking patterns related to overestimating the probability of danger.


When a person encounters the feared animal, his or her body will typically experience a physiological reaction referred to as a “Fight or Flight” response, which refers to preparing one’s body to either aggressively defend itself against perceived threat (killing a snake), or to flee from the threat as quickly as possible (running away from a rodent).

This response pattern is oftentimes also referred to as a “panic attack.” A panic attack consists of bodily changes such as rapid heart rate, shortness of breath, feelings of chocking, chest tightness, dizziness, etc.

These frightening (although harmless) physical sensations have a very sudden onset, and usually last for 8-10 minutes.

Avoidance Behaviors

Individuals with an animal phobia rarely seek treatment for their condition simply because they will often do whatever it takes to avoid encountering the feared animal.

Although this type of behavior results in short-term relief, it also serves to strengthen one’s fear, since avoidance does not give the person an opportunity to learn that the catastrophic outcomes predicted concerning an interaction with the feared animal never occurred, or at least not to the severity he or she anticipated.

Overestimating Threat

Anxiety is an emotion, and like all emotions, is triggered by specific thoughts and images.

Those with any type of anxiety disorder have a strong tendency to significantly overestimate the probability of danger, as well as the predicted severity of the outcome related to the object or situation they fear.

In addition, they also consistently underestimate their ability to effectively cope with the feared situation. As a result of this thinking pattern, these individuals become hyper-vigilant regarding their source of threat, particularly when encountering an environment that may possibly contain an object they fear.

If a person fears spiders, and finds oneself in an old dusty attic, they will instantly begin scanning the area for any sign of spiders (spider webs), or something that may be misinterpreted as a spider, such as a black dot of paint on the wall.

This hyper-vigilance and/or visual misinterpretation of danger will then trigger physical sensations of panic, followed by the display of escape behaviors (running out of the room).


Although animal phobias are among the most common of the specific phobias, they are also the most treatable, oftentimes requiring no more than 3-5 sessions.

As is the case with other anxiety disorders, the most effective treatment approach consists of a Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT) protocol.

Essential components contained within a CBT approach consist of first helping the person modify their current thinking patterns related to overestimation of threat, vulnerability, and danger; while also teaching him or her a set of skills directed at increasing confidence level regarding perceived ability to effectively interact with the feared animal.

Following this cognitive change, treatment then consists of gradual and systematic exposure to the animal under a variety of circumstances.

When working with patients, we begin exposure sessions by viewing various pictures of the animal, followed by specific video exposures, culminating with live interactions with the animal, while incorporating associated characteristics which trigger fear for that individual (e.g., size, color, movement, location, confinement, activity level, etc.).

In addition, a CBT approach also incorporates methods to help eliminate all forms of avoidance behaviors related to the feared animal.

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California and is co-executive director of the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry, with offices in Incline Village. He may be reached for comment at; visit anxiety to learn more.

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