For the first time, a study in Hungary including more than a thousand people discovered that those who feel more connected to nature are less likely to experience fears or phobias related to snakes and spiders. The study has been published in the People and Nature journal of the British Ecological Society.
Researchers from universities in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Portugal employed clinically validated questionnaires in the study to evaluate participants’ connection to nature and fear of snakes and spiders.
They discovered that those who self-rated themselves as having a strong connection to nature, notably a desire to be in touch with it and an interest in protecting it, were less likely to rate themselves highly on measures of snake and spider fear.
According to the researchers, this correlation suggests that being connected to nature may be protective against the two most common animal phobias, a fear of snakes and spiders.
Dr. Jakub Polák at Charles University, Czech Republic, and co-author of the study said:
“Analysis of our data showed one clear picture: the more you like nature and feel a part of it, the less you are at risk of developing a snake or spider phobia, an anxiety disorder which can significantly lower your quality of life.”
Dr. Coelho at the University of Porto, Portugal, and co-author of the study, stressed that the association found in this study can go both ways:
“A connection to nature may cause people to experience less fear of snakes and spiders. However, it is also possible that people with a lower fear of snakes and spiders are consequently more interested in nature and feel a stronger connection with the natural environment.”
Connectedness to nature can have a wide range of positive effects. In our study, we find that it may prevent the development of animal phobias or could facilitate coping with such fear if they already exist. It’s also been shown that being connected to nature carries health benefits and can result in more knowledge and a more positive attitude towards animals, along with greater environmental responsibility.Dr. András Norbert Zsido
Additionally, the researchers gathered demographic information from the individuals and discovered that living in less urbanized areas and being older were similarly linked to lessened fear of snakes and spiders.
The study’s findings add to the mounting evidence of the benefits of connecting with nature and spending time outdoors, including better health, better happiness, and less stress.
Dr. András Norbert Zsido, at the University of Pécs, Hungary, and co-author of the study said:
“Connectedness to nature can have a wide range of positive effects. In our study, we find that it may prevent the development of animal phobias or could facilitate coping with such fear if they already exist. It’s also been shown that being connected to nature carries health benefits and can result in more knowledge and a more positive attitude towards animals, along with greater environmental responsibility.”
It is believed that human fear of snakes and spiders is a result of evolutionary threats. While these concerns can serve as a form of protection, having a phobia a severe, unfounded fear can be extremely distressing and interfere with a person’s day-to-day activities as they attempt to avoid all contact with the phobic stimulus.
The Nature Relatedness Scale was used by the researchers to evaluate the individuals’ relationship to nature. Participants are asked to check whether they agree or disagree with statements about attitudes toward conservation, feelings of belonging to nature, and comfort in the wilderness.
Higher scores reflect a closer bond with nature. The researchers used well-known questionnaires that are employed in phobia clinical screens to measure participants’ fear of snakes and spiders.
Following responses to questions about fainting or avoiding snakes and spiders, participants were shown pictures of the creatures and asked to rate them on three different scales: whether they thought the pictures were unpleasant or pleasant, whether they made them feel calm or excited, and whether they felt in control of the animals in the pictures or not.
The researchers were unable to determine the direction of the relationship between connection to nature and animal concerns because the study was correlational in nature and did not gather longitudinal data.
Dr. Zsido explained: “This was a cross-sectional study, so we were not able to measure possible effects of nature-relatedness on fears over time. Whether pro-environmental education and increased time spent in natural environments could reliably decrease fears is still an open question.”
The researchers want to find out if their findings hold true for other animal phobias or if they apply to people from different cultural backgrounds.
Dr. Polák said: “I would like to see if the same association between connectedness to nature and animal fears would be found in other countries with a different culture, different levels of urbanization, and potentially different attitudes towards animals. We suppose that fear of snakes and spiders is universal all over the world but is the protective role of nature connectedness universal as well? That would be worth future research.”
Understanding what causes animal phobias to persist also interests the researchers. Dr. Coelho added:
“I would like to know why some people never seem to leave behind their fears, even if they have a lot of experience with the object that evokes the feeling. Is this due to the nature of the stimuli itself, or maybe to individual differences?”