I’m a very unlikely Pokemon Go player. I am not your typical demographic, as I am not a millennial, teen or child. I am an outlier to the normal distribution curve of the “typical” Pokemon Go players, as I’m almost eligible for senior discounts. Before Pokemon Go, I had never played a video game. It was my professional background in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that made me curious about this location-based, augmented reality game. But instead of learning about applications of geospatial technologies, to my most surprising and serendipitous discovery, I began learning how to deal with my life-long phobia of snakes, known as ophidiophobia.
Yes, you heard me correctly. Pokemon Go is helping me deal with my fear of snakes. This is not a small dislike; I have a debilitating fear of snakes. If I even see one in a magazine, I involuntarily scream and will fling it across the room. Similarly, I scream when snakes appear on television, movie screens, and even when I see toy snakes.
I had no idea that there would be any snakes involved in Pokemon Go, so imagine my reaction when Ekans, a purple snake, appeared on the screen of my phone, wrapped around my avatar’s legs. Since I couldn’t fling my Turbo Android across the street, I had to keep my wits about me. I had to steel myself and face this cartoon snake wriggling its head at me. So, I did what any self-respecting Pokemon gamer would do and flicked the ball to capture him with one throw. To most this would be easy; it is just a game after all. But for me, this was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done in dealing with my snake phobia. It’s not only terrifying but highly embarrassing for me to exhibit these anxiety symptoms in public!
Once Ekans was gone, I shivered and tried to shake off the visual of the creepy purple snake. Would I ever encounter it again? I didn’t know, since I had just started learning about the game. What if it surprised me again? Would I be able to control my impulses of screaming and throwing my phone to avoid seeing it? Though I didn’t have the answers to these questions, I realized that it was a small personal victory and an important step in conquering ophidiophobia.
Studies have shown that one-third of adults suffers from fear of snakes, making it the most commonly known animal phobia, according to CalmClinic.com. I learned about another phobia, though lesser-known, at the grocery store. Since I had just captured a Pokemon while waiting in line, I asked the young lady helping me if she played Pokemon Go. She told me she couldn’t because she was afraid of birds. “Birds?” I blurted out. “That must be so hard! How do you even deal with that?” I had never heard of such a phobia. She told me that “It’s really bad. I love the ocean but can’t go because of the gulls, and of course, there are pigeons in the parking lot here. It’s awful. They are everywhere!” I felt terrible for her. I shared my Ekans story with her and suggested that Pokemon Go might also help her in dealing with her fear of birds. She laughed and gave a noncommittal, “maybe.” I waved goodbye and said, “We’ll chat again. Hope you try it!” I’ll ask her next time I see her.
So why do humans have these animal phobias? Graham C. L. Davey, Ph.D., wrote the article “What are you so afraid of?” (Psychology Today, 2014) and cited Martin Seligman, who argued that “we tend to have a built-in predisposition to learn to fear things such as snakes, spiders, heights, and water because these were life-threatening to our ancestors,” and they passed that on to us for our survival. As I remember vaguely from my college biology and psychology classes, this is known as ancestral memory, passing down their genome knowledge that will make sure their descendant’s successful lineage. So even though there is no longer a threat in the same way, many of us still have extreme fears.
The Ekans experience was an accidental first step to overcoming my extreme fear of snakes. In order to continue with the game, I had to stare him down and deal with my fear. Since I can choose when to play, find out if Ekans is nearby, and prepare for his appearance, my repeated and controlled exposure to Ekans has desensitized me each time I see the cartoon snake. As a result, I feel less anxiety every time. Unbeknownst to me, this is called exposure therapy. According to CalmClinic.com, exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, and relaxation training are the first three steps in cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, to overcome snakes phobia.
As I researched this topic, I was reminded of my late father-in-law, a psychologist who used colored photographs of brass grasshoppers to work with his patients with phobias like mine. I can personally attest that by visually introducing me to a cartoon snake in a controlled and safe environment, it successfully reduced my anxiety and negative symptoms. Though it may sound silly, I’m dealing with my snake phobia in the most unexpected way with Pokemon Go. Through the game, I am able to be exposed at my own pace, on my own time, and outside of the therapist’s office. I still jump if I see a picture of a real snake, but I will continue with Ekans and graduate to a photograph eventually. Until then, I’m happy to conclude that I have passed the first phase of overcoming ophidiophobia. Thank you, Pokemon Go!