A snake phobia leads to a reaction that ranges from caution to full-on panic attacks. Being scared of snakes can be a problem for individuals who’ve never seen a snake in real life. Of course, some snakes are very dangerous, and we don’t always know how to tell venomous and non-venomous snakes apart. Harmless corns snakes are often confused with venomous copperheads, for example.
According to scientists, humans have a hardwired response to snakes that enabled humans to survive for longer in the wild. The brain processes images of snakes (bites, fangs, and venom) and that results in an unconscious, immediate fear reaction. This common phobia (ophidiophobia) is also a cultural phenomenon due to the way snakes are depicted on TV, in movies, and books.
We’ll explain how common having a phobia of snakes is in America and let you know the most common symptoms. For anybody who wants to overcome their fear of snakes, we’ll explain more about exposure therapy and how it works to overcome our evolutionary fears of snakes.
What is a Fear of Snakes Called?
A fear of snakes is called ophidiophobia. It is ingrained in us all. If you see a snake in the wild, you’ll avoid it. But being scared of snakes, meaning a real phobia, is far less common.
Like any other phobia, the suffix phobia means ‘fear of.’ The prefix ‘ophidio’ is a little more interesting. It comes from Greek, but the word has been changed a little. The Greek for snake is ‘ophis,’ but the word was changed to end with an ‘a’ sound like agoraphobe or arachnophobe.
Because the term has been changed a little, you might also hear ophiophobia, which also means fear of snakes. However, ophidiophobia is the more common form of the word.
Fear of Snakes Statistics
How common is a fear of snakes? According to a Gallup poll in 2001, snakes are the number one phobia in the U.S.
They found that 51% of Americans were afraid of snakes to a greater or lesser extent. That was slightly less than the 56% of respondents who were afraid of snakes in 1998.
What is a Phobia of Snakes?
A phobia isn’t just fear. If it were just a fear, we wouldn’t need a specific term for it. A phobia is an intense and irrational fear of something that poses little danger. However, there are also many more symptoms of phobias that are related to anxiety. These include the following:
- Being short of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Uncontrollable trembling and shaking
- A complete focus on the phobia, to the exclusion of any other thought
If you’ve ever had a panic attack, or you know somebody who has, you’ll recognize these symptoms immediately. They’re very similar to intense anxiety, which is a mental health condition.
It that you can’t just explain to them that everything is fine—because they don’t feel that way. Around 10% of people in the U.S. have a current phobia of something, and the prevalence of phobias is more common in women than in men.
What Causes Fear of Snakes?
Several factors make ophidiophobia so common. Snakes are genuinely scary because of our ancestral heritage. When we lived in caves and went outdoors more often, we weren’t so in control of our environment.
100,000 years ago, our ancestors couldn’t call pest control to get rid of snakes for us. So, we had to be good at detecting them and getting away from them as fast as we can.
Four decades of research on the topic were presented in a paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. The team of scientists conducting the study found that the image of a snake prompts an immediate, non-conscious fear response in us.
This response developed over many thousands of years so that our ancestors could spot snakes better and avoid getting bitten by them.
Besides that, a fear of snakes is ingrained in our culture. We see our parents concerned, and that fear passes on to us. By contrast, if your parents keep snakes as pets, then the odds are that you’ll be far less afraid of snakes than others.
Through countless books, TV shows, movies, and songs we’ve learned to be afraid of snakes and associate them with negative repercussions (bites, pain, and death). Not only that, but we don’t often encounter them, so the fear of the unknown is at play too.
How to Overcome Fear of Snakes
The easiest way to overcome a fear of snakes is to learn more about them. The vast majority of snake species in the U.S. and across the world are non-venomous. There are only four types of venomous snakes in America, so take time to learn which ones should be avoided.
So, if you find a snake in the wild, it’s unlikely to be one that’s going to kill you. If you’re unsure if it’s non-venomous, you should walk away from it slowly and carefully.
Are Snakes Scared of Humans?
Snakes are significantly more scared of humans than we are of them. Sure, we know that some of them have venomous fangs. But to them, we’re a giant monster that’s a hundred times their size.
If we encountered a giant that many times bigger than we are, it wouldn’t matter if we had venomous fangs—we’d still be afraid of them.
Also, almost all snake bites are from snakes that feel threatened, or are provoked. Very few snakes actively hunt for humans. It wouldn’t make any sense — we are too big for almost all snakes to eat.
The only exceptions are enormous, very rare snakes in Southeast Asia like reticulated pythons that are just about big enough to eat people. However, there have been fewer than a handful of proven reported cases in the past century. You should also avoid Burmese pythons on Florida.
How to Get Rid of a Fear of Snakes
You can overcome a fear of snakes quite easily through exposure therapy. This is one of the oldest therapeutic techniques, dating back to when Freud and friends were first exploring psychoanalysis, phobia, and fear. It is where you’re gradually exposed to whatever it is that scares you. Here’s how it works:
- You start by talking about your fear. Tell a friend or relative (or for best results, a therapist) about your fear, exposure therapy, and why you have to talk about it. Then explain to them what makes you feel so terrified.
- Once you’re comfortable talking and thinking about snakes, take a ‘step closer’ to the real fear. Look at some photographs of snakes, for example. Then move on to videos of snakes in their natural habitat. Don’t search for exciting, scary photos of snakes striking or attacking, just normal snake behavior.
- Next, you could find a toy and spend time handling it. You’ll feel afraid at first, but it’s just a toy, so it can’t hurt you.
- Again, once you’re comfortable with this stage, move on to the next. Visit a zoo where you know they keep some snakes as exhibits. Just stand close by and observe the snake. It probably won’t be doing anything, but it might be feeding. Return regularly until you’re comfortable watching the snake. If that would cost too much, maybe consider a pet shop.
- Start to become comfortable around a snake that’s ‘loose.’ If your friend owns a snake, ask if you could come and see their pet, and watch them handling it. You don’t need to handle the snake at this point, get comfortable being around it. If you don’t have a friend that owns a snake, again, consider a pet store. They’ll take snakes out of their enclosure for you to see.
- The next step is the big one, which is handling the snake. Unless you plan on owning a pet snake, you don’t need to do this, because at this point you’ll be comfortable enough with snakes anyway. But repeated handling will completely erase your fear of snakes.
If you have a genuine fear of snakes, you might be wondering how on earth you could ever be comfortable holding one. But that’s the point of all the preceding steps. Each one makes you gradually more comfortable until your fear of snakes is overcome.