Don’t Let a Fear of Pests Shrink Your Life

I hear people talk about a dread of pests a lot as a clinical psychologist in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area. More Americans are afraid of animals than any other objects or circumstances in the United States.


Some people, however, have fears that are out of proportion with the danger that they are facing, persist over time, and lead to avoidance and other behaviors that cause them to become phobic – which is what makes it a phobia. For animal phobias, the lifetime prevalence estimate ranges from 3.3 to 5.7 percent. For animal fears, the lifetime prevalence estimate ranges from 12.6 to 22.2 percent.


People are more likely to develop phobias of insects, snakes, and mice compared to other animals. Abir Syed, 33, an e-commerce consultant from Montreal, became agitated when his office moved into the same building as the R&D department of the Austin start-up he worked for that grew insects for human consumption.


A phobia of insects is classified as an entomophobia or an insectophobia in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) of the American Psychiatric Association. As with other phobias, women are more likely to suffer from it. It may be that women are more fearful because natural selection has favored females who are most averse to danger, especially when they become mothers, or because socialization has taught women to show fear.

Insect phobias and other fears: what causes them?

Interactions between genetics, parenting, and life events increase susceptibility. People with phobias are also more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders like panic disorder.

When confronted with a feared object or situation, an individual who suffers from a phobia may experience uncomfortable physical symptoms such as rapid and shallow breathing, tightness in the chest, pounding heart, dry throat, sweating, and nausea. As part of the “fight-or-flight” response, this is something that was useful when defending ourselves against dangers in the past, but now just sounds like a fire alarm while we cook. You may also experience paralysis and disgust when confronted with what you fear.

Avoidance leads to anxiety

Getting frightened or disgusted makes us avoid anything that we’re afraid of, like bugs or spiders. Among other strategies, people might need to drink alcohol or use technology to distract themselves from anxious thoughts and feelings.


However, avoidance is only temporary. It will be less stressful to leave a swarm of insects behind, but anxiety will return later. Due to this, more and more anxiety-producing situations are avoided, causing lives to shrink.

It is best to seek the most effective treatment

The effectiveness of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in treating anxiety disorders and phobias has been demonstrated by studies of randomized control trials for more than 50 years. In spite of CBT’s existence since the 1960s, it is still poorly understood by the general public and even by patients seeking psychological treatment.


As part of CBT for phobias (and other anxiety disorders), exposure therapy consists of learning to approach, rather than avoid, objects such as insects and other feared situations. Insects are then pictured, viewed, played with toy insects, visited areas filled with insects, and then touched.


As patients do exposure, modeling, coaching, encouraging and cheerleading, a therapist is right there interacting with them, modeling, coaching, encouraging, and cheerleading them. A collaborative therapeutic relationship is necessary to achieve exposure therapy. Exposure is a simple concept, but when applied correctly, it can be tailored to a patient’s needs.


Cognitive-behavioral therapists also conduct sessions outdoors when necessary, in addition to doing exposure therapy in a traditional office setting. If necessary, such exposure may occur in the park with an insect-phobic patient, in a zoo reptile house with a snake-phobic patient, or when traveling with a frightened driver or traveler. In between sessions, patients are also encouraged to do exposures on themselves or on others. Treatment is more effective when it occurs in more contexts.


The average number of sessions needed to treat phobias is ten weekly sessions, but depending on the severity of the symptoms and the patient’s willingness to undergo treatment, this number may be shorter or longer. An exposure of three hours can also be used to treat spider, snake, and needle phobias. A promising result has been seen in the use of virtual reality and augmented reality exposure therapy. Insect phobias can be relieved by superimposing virtual cockroaches or spiders on real environments, for example.


By exposing ourselves to anxiety, we can also observe and test our irrational or unhelpful thinking patterns. We can boost our recovery from phobias when we recognize our tendency to catastrophize. It can boost recovery if, for example, we realize we are unlikely to be tripped up by insects. When we imagine how insects will live, we have the opportunity to challenge an anxious concern about not being able to deal with uncertainty.


Exposure therapy is extremely effective, but many people avoid it because they find it frightening or overwhelming. Determine your motivation before starting. Your therapist can explain how the process will unfold and answer any questions or concerns you may have regarding this therapy. Finding a therapist with whom you are comfortable is another factor that determines whether an individual will attempt exposure therapy. A positive predictor of success in exposure treatment is also self-efficacy and motivation.


Certain phobias, including insectophobia, are common among children and adolescents. There are some differences between cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for children and CBT for adults.


Veronica L. Raggi, author of Exposure Therapy for Treating Anxiety in Children and Adolescents: A Comprehensive Guide, says goal charts and rewards help make exposures fun. If children view exposure treatment as a game, they are more likely to participate, she said. When children experience small successes and gain pride over time, they become more confident, she said. By rewarding them for reaching exposure goals, they become even more motivated, she said.


During CBT, parents are taught to encourage their child not to give into their fears and to encourage them to try new things, even if they are a bit frightened at first. According to Raggi, parents have the most trouble learning to wait before jumping to their rescue. In the long run, children who see their parents modeling curiosity, wonder, and exploration will feel less fear and anxiety.