TikToks of a cute spider helped me overcome a years-long crippling phobia.
The account is run by one of a number of TikTokers looking to help people with their phobias.
Experts say it makes sense that these videos can be so beneficial to people like me.
I joined TikTok in early 2021 for the cute animals - think pandas and corgis - but weeks later, an unexpected creature appeared on my feed: a jumping spider. I had a lifelong spider phobia and panicked right when I saw it. I could feel my skin crawl - I was convinced it had somehow jumped through the screen and onto me.
I'd taken many steps to address this phobia in the past. Exposing myself to spiders I met on my porch, listening to guided hypnosis sessions on YouTube, and even trying real-life hypnotherapy sessions to "cure" my fear hadn't worked.
But this time, choosing to stay and face my fear once again, I found that my panic response was neutralized when I noticed other details highlighted in the video - the fact the spider was called Bea, that she was tiny, her squeaky "voice," the things she was "saying" about chasing bugs. Rather than virtually swat her away, I was surprised to find I wanted to see more of her.
That's why I ended up following the TikTok account, @mini_robomuppets, created by Emily Hess, an esthetician from Iowa.
I've now watched countless videos of Bea and Hess' other eight-legged friends, and I've found it has lessened my phobia. It hasn't completely disappeared, but it has been more effective than all of the other methods I'd tried. Now, if I see one, panic fades after seconds, not hours.
When left untreated, phobias can be debilitating, according to Dr. Warren Mansell, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in clinical psychology at the University of Manchester in the UK.
TikTokers like Hess, who also struggled with arachnophobia, are leveraging the algorithm to overcome their own phobias, and help thousands of followers do the same. Experts warn there can be pitfalls to turning to TikTok for help with mental health conditions, but they also say that when done right, it can be hugely beneficial for people like me.
Exposure therapy is recommended by experts to treat phobias
Fear is a natural human response to help us detect threats, Mansell told Insider. It prepares the body to escape by increasing the heartbeat so that more oxygen is sent to the muscles and adrenaline enters the bloodstream. Phobias can elicit a similar response, and can be extremely distressing and interfere with people's daily lives, Mansell explained.
One of the most popular treatments for phobias is exposure therapy, which incrementally exposes a person to the source of their phobia to help change their response to it. A 2008 review by University of Mississippi Medical Center researchers found it can be effective over the course of just three hours.
Hess told me it didn't occur to her to seek professional help for her phobia, but she knew she needed to overcome it. She followed spider-related subreddits to learn more about them, identified spiders she spotted, and took photos of them.
She soon began to notice her reaction to spiders was changing, and used a lot of the lessons she learned, including slow exposure and finding what's interesting about the spiders, to inform her TikToks.
TikTokers are using the same tactics to help people treat their phobias
Mansell believes that Hess' videos act as a form of exposure therapy. The reframing of her spiders as fun and cute - Trinket dancing, Bea climbing, Maple complaining about a praying mantis - may have been instrumental in helping me minimize my phobia.
Christopher Paul Jones, a London-based therapist who specializes in phobias, recognizes the similarities with his method for treating clients. "I get my clients to imagine a spider on roller skates, with a cute face, a wig, and a silly voice," he said. "In changing the spider's appearance, we can change the emotions associated with it."
Hess has 800,000 TikTok followers, and hundreds leave comments - often about how she's helped them.
"I've been overwhelmed with the positivity," Hess told Insider. "I just want to help people view spiders in the same way I do."
Hess is not alone. Kristina Wolf, a wildlife researcher from California, runs a TikTok account called @linguini_thesnake from the perspective of a Trans-Pecos rat snake who wears hats and makes funny sounds. She has a million followers, and told me she receives many messages saying she's helped them overcome snake phobias.
The account @flyiingtwins, which is run by pilots, posts videos using hashtags like #aviation and #fearlessflying, answering questions about safety or showing videos of pilots in full control. A follower recently commented: "I'm dearly afraid to fly. It stops me from living my best life. This page is EVERYTHING."
Jones explained these videos might be helpful because people are relaxed when they watch them, and the associations they have with the source of their phobias are being challenged (with "cute" spiders, calming views of cockpits, and silly antics of a snake).
TikTok's algorithm could be particularly useful to people with phobias
Most people with arachnophobia wouldn't search for spiders, but because TikTok videos play automatically, I had an unexpected opportunity to face my fear.
"People with phobias do want to overcome them, and they're often interested or even fascinated by the animals and other experiences they're afraid of," Mansell said, explaining why I didn't swipe away when Bea appeared.
TikTok does allow users to easily swipe away videos they don't want to see, which Mansell believes creates a safe space. His research shows people who manage their own exposure report less avoidance weeks later compared to people who had no control over the images.
There are potential pitfalls to TikTok content intended to help with phobias
Videos tagged with #phobia or with the names of specific phobias on TikTok do not appear to be moderated and can vary widely, featuring detailed accounts of symptoms or intense exposure. Although this might help to normalize phobias, Jones warned they could also escalate anxiety for people who live with them.
"Any video that makes the problem seem funny or less significant will likely help you cope better," he said, whereas a video that depicts it as "big or dramatic" could make the phobia worse.
Even well-meaning videos, such as Hess' cute spiders, have the potential to cause anxiety. This is especially the case given the lack of consistency with TikTok's hashtags - #arachnophobia might be used on a video of a spider that's been created to help people, like Hess', as well as on a video featuring a much more scary, large and fast-moving spider that the creator is visibly scared of.
Jones warns there's also a danger users might think they've overcome a phobia when in fact the relief they feel could only be temporary.
Ultimately, it's all subjective, he stresses. Not everyone who sees Bea will have the same experience and not everyone will be able to find videos that expose them to sources of their fear in a way that's helpful - TikTok isn't a guaranteed cure. But for people like me, it may be a free, safe, and accessible option to reduce the grip phobias have on our lives.
Read the original article on Insider