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  • Josh Vaisman

Your Fear of Spiders Might Make You Happier

Updated: Oct 2, 2018



Spiders both fascinate and terrify me. Mostly terrify, though. They are sort of like the car accident on the highway – I can’t look away. Probably because I’m convinced they are plotting my demise and I need to keep a watchful eye. Maybe that’s why, whenever it’s on TV, I have to watch Arachnophobia.


Of course, these tiny insects are essentially harmless so I’m not exactly proud of my fear of them. But a study about overcoming a fear of spiders gave me the strength to share my fears with the world (I have bold plans for Flourish Veterinary Consulting!).


Researchers divided arachnophobes into three groups each of which received a different intervention focused on regulating their fears. The first group used cognitive reappraisal to verbally reframe the spider before them. The second group used distraction to attempt to ignore the spider. The third group used intentionally more descriptive language to describe the spider – for example, “here is a terrifying, disgusting spider with vicious little teeth and it is making me nervous and uncomfortable. I am also fascinated by its movements.” The researchers found the third method the most effective in reducing the anxiety the arachnophobes felt in the presence of a creepy, obviously murderous, spider.


Neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, calls this emotional granularity and it turns out it’s a powerful tool in emotional intelligence. So powerful, in fact, those who master it use medication less and spend fewer days in the hospital due to illness, and they drink less and respond less aggressively to those who have wronged them.

Neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett, calls this emotional granularity and it turns out it’s a powerful tool in emotional intelligence.

If you know anything about my blogs you know I’ve always got good news to share. So here it is – emotional granularity can be developed! Here are a couple ways to secure its powers and show those spiders who’s boss:


1) Learn More Words – If you’re anything like me you likely explain your emotions in a few simple terms. I have a small emotional menu – happy, livin’ the dream, pissed, exhausted, and hangry. The thing is, by using so few words I’ve taught my brain there are only five or so situations I’m ever in which means I’ve only got a repertoire of five or so responses. Not very sophisticated. Which is why I was so pumped when I found the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s “Feelings Inventory!” Now, I’m happy to share, I’m feeling empowered with a side of invigorated.


2) Make Up Descriptors – Sometimes there isn’t quite the right word available to describe how we are feeling, or words just aren’t descriptive enough. In that case, make something up! For example someone recently told me they wanted to quit what they were doing but in the most pathetic way. In her words, “like if you put a jacket on a cat and it can’t use its back legs kind of pathetic.” So descriptive! Also cracked me up.


3) (BONUS TIP) Recategorize – From time to time I have the honor of speaking to groups of people about topics I’m passionate about. Every time I get nervous and there’s always a moment right before I go on stage where I worry my nerves will overcome me and I’ll forget my lines. To battle this, as my talk approaches I find someone around me and say out loud to them, “I’m excited.” This is recategorization – I’ve taken my nervousness and called it excitement. Turns out this Jedi mind trick has tangible benefits – it actually reduces inflammatory chemicals in the body which improves performance.


So the next time I see one of those unnatural 8-legged creatures I’ll acknowledge feeling petrified and suspicious, look it directly in its beady little compound eyes and say, “nice to see you old friend.”


What new words will you add to your emotional dictionary?


- written by Josh Vaisman

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