The fear of reptiles is known as Herpetophobia.
This is more than a general dislike for lizards and snakes, rather the level of fear the individual experiences can be debilitating. Even looking at a picture or cartoon of a reptile can trigger an intense anxiety reaction.
A specific phobia generally develops due to an early life traumatic experience with that particular situation or object. This remains an aspect of psychological make up even after the experience is over which results in an ongoing irrational fear (Reynolds, Salamander & Wilson, 2018) of said situation or object.
From Fear to Phobia
The human experience involves feeling ‘fear’ as this is helpful to keep ourselves safe from very real threats and dangers. The fear response has been vital to human survival going back to cave days (O’Kelly, 2010). The fear response is triggered by physical and emotional danger to us, this is what helped to keep cave people safe from predators, fires, heights and other threats to their lives.
These days, sometimes that fear response becomes extreme or irrational, in response to many other situations and / or objects, such as small spaces, public speaking, heights, spiders and many, many others.
These do not present the same level of threat to us like what the cave people faced, however some people can have an extreme fight, flight or freeze response to their feared situation or object.
It is common for people to have occasional experiences of feeling scared or nervous when going on a first date, trying something new, meeting new people, changing schools or jobs etc.
However it is when this goes beyond feeling scared and nervous, to intense fear that is persistent and / or specific to a situation or object, impacting their ability to participate in everyday life at a reasonably functional level, that it strays into phobia territory.
Herpetophobia (Reptile Phobia)
Herpetophobia is a specific phobia: As with many phobias, there is a spectrum of severity and responses depending on the individual.
Some may be uncomfortable in the presence of reptiles; some fearful only in the direct presence of a snake, lizard or other reptile; while others may have debilitating fear and panic attacks by looking at a photo or cartoon drawing of the reptile. Still others may even have the extreme fight, flight or freeze response just at the thought of the reptiles.
Symptoms of herpetophobia can include:
- Feeling fear when in proximity of a reptile;
- Inability to attend a premise (such as pet store/zoo) where there are reptiles;
- Refusal to attend outdoors activities (such as hikes/bushwalks) where it is likely to encounter reptiles;
- Intense (anxiety) responses such as screaming, crying, sweating, nausea, hyperventilating, shaking etc if there is an unexpected encounter with a reptile;
- Less severe fear may see an individual tolerate the presence of reptiles in the area, however panic if there is direct contact.
Do You Have a Reptile Phobia?
Do you think that you have a reptile phobia? Herpetophobia is one of the more common animal phobias individuals experience, and could be traced back to those cave days and beyond with many people experiencing a fear of snakes as they can be deadly.
A person may be fearful of snakes as they can be a legitimate threat to one’s life, however this can extend out to other (or all) reptiles as the person has associated them with being like snakes (because they are a reptile, some lizards may look like snakes etc).
Treating Reptile Phobia
As discussed earlier, there is a spectrum of fear and responses that individuals can have in response to reptiles.
Understanding the specifics of an individual’s level of fear, which situation/reptile is the trigger, and what the anxiety responses look like for that person, help to inform the route of treatment.
Some people may have medications to assist with the anxiety symptoms they experience when thinking of, looking at, being around, or handling reptiles.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy seeks to understand the deeper level of reasons and experiences with reptiles that has assisted in the development of the phobia. By exploring thoughts and behaviours (Dunsmoor & Murphy, 2015), we can change the (irrational) thoughts about reptiles to assist with feeling more comfortable looking at photos, cartoons, being around or handling them without the extreme anxiety responses of the phobia.
Exposure therapy can also be used, this entails gradually being exposed to the reptile/situation, having support with thoughts, feelings and coping skills to manage the anxiety (Johnson& Sharon, 1997).
This process is worked on collaboratively, so the individual starts with a step that they can manage yet will still have some anxious thoughts and feelings. Working through the nervousness and confronting the object or situation that you fear and knowing that you can manage it (even when uncomfortable), can help to lessen the extreme responses (Reynolds, Salamander & Wilson, 2018).
An example may be looking at a cartoon drawing of a lizard, and learning to manage your thoughts, feelings and anxiety responses. Once the individual is able to look at this image with very little to nil difficulty, the next step may be looking at a photo of a lizard, then maybe a video, looking at one at the pet store or zoo, and all the way up to holding a lizard if this is the end goal. Perhaps one day there could be the opportunity to go through the process of exposure therapy with the aid of virtual reality (Horváthová, Siládi & Lacková, 2015)!
A specific phobia such as herpetophobia would only require treatment if it impacts daily activities, functioning, employment or personal relationships.
Personally I have had an interest, fascination and love of reptiles and bugs since I was little. I spent a lot of time catching ladybugs, beetles, small geckos/skinks etc in those plastic bug catchers (always being released later) to look at them in awe. I didn’t want to be scared of these creatures that are part of daily life (if I didn’t need to be) so I learned about them, which ones were safe and which ones were not. I caught and handled them to build that confidence that I could be okay in their presence.
Although I have an interest in bugs, frogs and other reptiles, I absolutely adore lizards and geckos. I can recall myself or my dad catching the geckos from the wall and having them run all over me (this would have helped me to realise psychologically that they are safe and not harmful creatures, and was reinforced every time I handled them).
I have a blue tongue lizard and a pink tongue skink as my pets and they are fantastic. The pink tongue skink is able to climb over me and the blue tongue is great for sitting and chilling out with.
The beauty of having a clinician who loves reptiles to take you through confronting your fear of them is, that you will know I handle these guys on a daily basis and am sincere in the fact that they are beautiful creatures who can be loved (or even just tolerated) as much as the fuzzy and furry creatures. I am proof of the challenge of that irrational fear and those beliefs that you may hold and when we come to the stage of looking at pictures, I can show you my lizards to start with.
Aleah Haffenden is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, working primarily with young people (aged 15 and up). She takes a client-focused approach, using a mix of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), tailored to their specific needs.
To make an appointment with Aleah Haffenden, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
- Dunsmoor, J. E., & Murphy, G. L. (2015). Categories, concepts, and conditioning: how humans generalize fear. Trends in cognitive sciences, 19(2), 73-77.
- Horváthová, D., Siládi, V., & Lacková, E. (2015, November). Phobia treatment with the help of virtual reality. In 2015 IEEE 13th International Scientific Conference on Informatics (pp. 114-119). IEEE.
- Johnson, Sharon L. (Sharon Lorraine). (1997). Therapist’s guide to clinical intervention : the 1-2-3’s of treatment planning. San Diego :Academic Press,
- O’Kelly, M. (2010). CBT in ACTION: A Practitioner’s Toolkit. CBT Australia.
- Reynolds, B. R., Salamander, T., & Wilson, T. P. (2018). A walk in the woods: changing student attitudes toward amphibians and reptiles. Creative Education, 9(02), 182.