What is Herpetophobia?

A Fear of Reptiles and Lizards

Lizard, Colorado River, Grand Canyon, Arizona, United States
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Herpetophobia is a fear of reptiles, specifically snakes and lizards. The severity of this relatively common specific phobia can vary drastically, making it difficult to decide without guidance from a mental health professional whether you have a clinical phobia or simply a fear.

Specific phobias are an irrational fear of a situation or object, and their boundless number is only limited by the number of nouns in any language.

All types of phobia are a serious mental illness, known as an anxiety disorder, and affect 10 to 12 percent of people in the United States. The other two types of phobia are agoraphobia and social phobia (social anxiety disorder).

An Evolutionary Phobia

There is a theory that herpetophobia, along with arachnophobia (fear of spiders), is an evolutionary phobia. Theorists posit that our ancestors tended to fear animals, both vertebrates, and invertebrates, that could cause harm. So, the sheer number of venomous reptiles in the environment could have caused herpetophobia to develop over time.

Herpetophobia is Highly Personalized

Herpetophobia is a very personalized phobia, meaning symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. While you might only be afraid when touching a large snake, another sufferer might have a more severe case and cannot even look at photographs of small, harmless geckos.

Your various symptoms of herpetophobia might include:

  • fear whenever you are in proximity to a reptile or even amphibian
  • the inability to shop in pet stores that offer reptiles for sale
  • refusal to go on hiking trips or other activities during which there is a chance of encountering a reptile
  • overreacting, such as screaming crying, shaking or hyperventilating, if you unexpectedly encounter the reptile of your fear

    Characteristics of a less severe phobia include being able to tolerate reptiles in the area, but panicking if you come into physical contact with one.

    Treatment for Herpetophobia

    A specific phobia only requires treatment if it interferes with your daily activities, including your job and personal relationships. If you think you're exhibiting symptoms of herpetophobia, consult a doctor or therapist to determine of it's just an everyday fear or you meet the criteria for a clinical diagnosis.

    Therapeutic options include:

    • psychoanalysis, one-on-one talk therapy
    • Systematic desensitization, also known as graduated exposure therapy, may include Neuro-Linguistic Programming, virtual reality exposure therapy, eye movement desensitization, and reprocessing
    • psychoeducation to restructure your phobic thoughts
    • hypnotherapy

    With proper treatment, the vast majority of phobias are manageable or curable. Over time, however, untreated phobias can worsen and become life-limiting. 

    Systematic Desensitization Therapy

    Systematic desensitization, based on the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy, can treat 90 percent of herpeto-phobics successfully.

    Depending on the severity of your case, according to Tom G. Stevens, Ph.D., a psychologist professor emeritus at California University, you can guide yourself through the steps or seek the help of a mental health professional. This method takes various forms and is the common mode of treatment for the vast majority of specific phobia cases. It leaves the client in control and never terrorize or cause discomfort to the patient.


    American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.New York Stevens, Tom. Cal State University Long Beach: Self-Desensitization Instructions

    University Department of Applied Psychology: The Many Treatment Methodologies for Phobias - Finding the Best Fit

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