Social phobia vs Spider phobia

In my last blog I talked about my personal “dislike” of spiders and other insects. In this blog we are going to look at the relationship between spider phobia and social phobia.

The major difference between specific phobias and social phobia is that people generally need to be around other people a lot the time. This is a bit similar to my unusual experience of moving from Iceland to Australia. I had to get used to being around spiders and other bugs all the time. After 6 years in the country, my fear of spiders had definitely decreased.


Social phobia and safety behaviours

With social phobia, you have to be around, and communicate with, other people on a daily basis. Therefore, the system that maintains social phobia is somewhat more complicated. People develop highly sophisticated mechanisms to prevent negative evaluation by other people. For example, imagine that I always wore pink socks while in Australia, and never got a serious spider bite. It’s possible that over time, I would begin to attribute my successful spider avoidance to the pink socks. This is known as a ‘safety signal’. As silly as this example sounds, we often learn ‘safety behaviours’ to help us deal with phobias and anxieties in day to day life.

The problem with safety signals is that I cannot always wear pink socks – can I? I would need to wear pink socks at all times to feel relaxed, and that could lead to some awkward social situations. I would feel anxious whenever I didn’t have access to pink socks. This is a little bit what happens with social anxiety – individuals have to be around and interact with other people on daily basis, so they develop ‘safety signals’ which prevent the feared social situation from happening.

Any behaviour can function as a safety signal.  For example, both talking more and not talking can potentially function as safety behaviour to prevent the social fear of appearing boring, depending on the individual and the context. The distinction between adaptive coping behaviours and maladaptive safety behaviours is sometimes blurred, as the same behaviour can function as both. The category which the behaviour falls in depends on its intended purpose, the underlying belief, and the consequences from the situation.

Back to my example, wearing pink socks in itself isn’t that unhelpful (maybe a bit childish). However, it is only unhelpful if I think my socks have to be pink for them to protect me from a poisonous spider. If I believe in this “function” of the behaviour, I am preventing myself from learning that people rarely get bitten by poisonous spiders in Australia, regardless of the colour of their socks. Also, it makes me nervous to travel, given that one cannot have access to pink socks at all times. In social anxiety these behaviours have many detrimental effects such as increased self-focused attention and preventing dis-confirmation. In fact, these behaviours can even have the opposite effect, and can end up being the reason why someone would judge someone else negatively (once again, think of the sock example).


Common safety behaviours for social anxiety include:

  • carrying deodorant around at all times
  • always saying “yes” to other people’s requests
  • rehearsing what to say before entering a social situation
  • only telling other people about positive aspects of your life
  • laughing at inappropriate times
  • avoiding eye contact
  • saying little in group situations
  • re-reading emails many times before sending them

People may feel their safety behaviours are helping them, but they aren’t. On the contrary, several studies have reported the detrimental effect of such safety behaviours in social situations (Kim, 2005; McManus et al., 2008; Morgan & Raffle, 1999; Wells et al., 1995). Consequently, the current view is that safety behaviours can interfere with standard cognitive behaviour therapy techniques by inhibiting testing of hypotheses for socially anxious individuals.

In our online treatment for social anxiety ( we explain these concepts in a lot more detail, and help people understand what their specific safety behaviours are. I hope you can see that social phobia is a much more complex issue than specific phobias, like spiders. You can now answer 10 questions, to see how you score on our free online social phobia symptoms test.

In an upcoming blog I will discuss the relationship between safety behaviours and one of my favourite topics – superstitious behaviours. My latest article on superstition was front page news in Iceland last week!





Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety


What is phobia? Spider phobia or arachnophobia

In my undergraduate studies we were asked to learn a list of phobias for an exam. Knowing obscure phobias was a fun party trick, and great for pub trivia! In clinical practice these types of phobias are all referred to as “specific phobias”. Instead of using “arachnaphobia” for the fear of spiders, it’s more often referred to as a spider phobia (sorry Holloywood!). In this blog I am going to talk a little about spider phobias.


Spider phobia

I am going to start with a personal disclosure. My first words as a child, were not “mum”, “dad”, “yes” or “no”. They were “Allt í lagi könguló”, which is Icelandic for saying “spiders are ok!”. The background is that when I was a toddler I would freak out each time a spider would run by, and my parents said those words to me so many times that they became my first! An interesting question is “was I born with an innate fear of spiders?”.

Early theorists (e.g. Seligman, 1971) would have said that I must have been bitten by a spider as a child. This is highly unlikely given the lack of big/dangerous/biting spiders in Iceland. Due to this influential theory in clinical psychology, therapists traditionally insisted that patients must have experienced at least one bad encounter with their fear-relevant stimulus (in my case a spider) in the original development of their phobia. However, it has since been observed that human beings are likely to have been born with innate fears. Menzies (my PhD supervisor) and Clarke (1995) emphasise that a goal for the treatment of phobias is to unlearn innate fears, as many are no longer relevant in a modern environment. However, it is possible that these innate fears served a purpose for the survival of the species 60,000 years ago. For example, it is conceivable that early humans who were anxious about lions and spiders while walking through certain areas in East Africa had an evolutionary advantage. In the picture below, you can see a lion hiding in the bushes, waiting for its prey to walk by?

spider phobia

If so, perhaps you would have lived another day!

Dangerous predators were a real risk in those times (I am sure the spiders they had to deal with were about 10 times the size of the Icelandic ones!), and a certain level of anxiety would help increase and maintain one’s guard against them. This model of innate fears became known as the non-associative model (see further, Menzies and Clarke, 1995). It can be understood as learning that has been encoded in the human genome.

Wherever people stand on the debate about the genetic basis of phobias and anxieties, it is clear that for adults with phobias, cognitive behaviour therapy is an effective treatment. A crucial ingredient is that you take small steps to expose yourself to the feared object – in my case spiders. My innate fear of spiders reduced significantly when I moved from Iceland to Australia. In Iceland there are hardly any spiders or bugs, but in Australia you have to deal with them on a daily basis. By being forced to confront my phobia, I made some progress towards decreasing my fears (although I still hate mosquitos, but that’s more of an annoyance than a fear). In the next blog I will look at the difference between spider phobia and social phobia.





Fjola  Helgadottir, PhD, MClinPsych, is a clinical psychologist, a senior research clinician at the University of Oxford, and is a co-creator of, an online CBT treatment program for overcoming social anxiety