Insect Phobias

Phobias are very common – it is believed that at least one person in 10 is
affected at some time in their life. And phobias about insects are among
the commonest of all. A severe phobia about them can be as disabling as any
anxiety disorder. Some people become almost prisoners in their own homes
for fear of common insects that the majority of people literally never notice.

WHAT EXACTLY IS A PHOBIA?

Anxiety is a human trait and most individuals will have experience of it.
Anxiety helps with vigilance, learning and general performance but in excess,
it starts to work against us as extreme self-focus and apprehension reduces
this attention and performance.  Anxiety at the minor symptom level
is familiar to virtually all of us and from Anxiety Care’s experience, this
often seems to weigh against an acute sufferer seeking help.  Embarrassment
and shame at an ‘over reaction’, perhaps aggravated by the particular blending
of emotions (such as anger, shame, guilt or sadness mixing with a dominating
fear) that make up their ‘personal anxiety’ keeps the problem hidden and
prevents this person from understanding that their response doesn’t mean
they are weak, soft or immature.   It is often not understood that
anxiety can follow a continuum from mild to acute that leaves some people
with ‘liveable’ responses but others deeply disabled.  With animal phobias,
the vast majority of people will be at, or close to, the mild end of the
line where the problem is, at most, irritating, but in no way affects their
everyday lives. This can work against the severe phobic as people experiencing
a similar fear at a low level very easily come to believe that the acute
sufferer is weak or ‘over reacting’.

Severe anxiety releases adrenaline and other chemicals into our blood, and
these speed up our heart-beat, sharpen our senses and heighten our physical
powers. These changes prepare us for what is called ‘flight or fight’- either
to fight for our lives, or to run for them. A phobia is a disorder in which
the body reacts in exactly the same way, and we experience the same feelings
of anxiety and fear – but in situations where there is absolutely no need
for  ‘flight or fight’.  The part of the mind that controls anxiety
has, to all intents and purposes, lost all sense of proportion, and screams
`danger!’ when the situation is not threatening in any rational way.
No matter how harmless the feared creature may be, for a severely phobic
person the fear reaction is every bit as real as if the cause was a major
threat. People with phobias usually realise all too well that their reaction
is irrational, but this makes no difference to its effect.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PHOBIA?

AInsect phobias can produce all the unpleasant symptoms of  ‘normal’
extreme anxiety:

heart palpitations
feeling sick
chest pains
difficulty breathing
dizziness
‘jelly legs’
feeling ‘unreal’
intense sweating
feeling faint
dry throat
restricted or ‘fuzzy’ vision or hearing.

In severe cases, people may feel certain that they are about to die, go mad,
or lose control of themselves and injure someone, or do some-thing disgusting
and humiliating. Most of all they feel an overpowering urge to ‘escape’ from
the situation they are in. They develop an acute fear of repeating these
very unpleasant experiences, and this is what starts the phobia: the extreme
reaction that is eased by escaping from the situation, which, in turn, proves
to that part of the mind that controls anxiety (which has little real ‘sense’)
that the extreme response was good and necessary. Of course, these are feelings,
not reality. In practice, even the worst panic attacks do not cause any long-term
ill-effects, and people simply do not die, go mad, or cause general mayhem
in the course of them.

As said, the level of symptoms that people with phobias experience
varies a great deal, from mild anxiety to very severe panic and terror. While
some people simply jump a little when they hear a pigeon’s wings fluttering,
others can barely cope with the anxiety this brings. Some people who have
full-scale panic attacks when a particular animal comes near them, refuse
to go anywhere where they might encounter one. Others will not look at any
book or magazine that might have photos of the feared creature in them.

In the early stages of an insect phobia, people sometimes try to overcome
their fears by brief encounters with the dreaded creature, usually retreating
instantly as anxiety rises.  This escape brings a reduction of tension
and rapidly becomes a habit, making it more likely that the next attempt
will fail even quicker, and so on until resistance is given up.  This
is ‘conditioning’ to fear.  To overcome the phobia this process has
to be reversed: the sufferer has to gradually expose him- or herself to the
feared situation and learn to tolerate the anxiety.

The fear reaction is virtually automatic, and very difficult to control.
In the early period of human development, it was a useful survival trait:
as a soft bodied species surrounded by predators, we needed an instant response
that would get us out of trouble, something that would not allow our inquisitive
brains to let us linger, looking for the cause.  However, humans learn
quickly and we can train ourselves to respond positively to threats, and
not to react with terror to things which prove, with experience, to be harmless.
Lion tamers, tight-rope walkers, scaffolders and fire-fighters have all learnt
to handle potentially dangerous situations safely. If this were not true,
we would still be cowering in the backs of caves.

WHAT CAUSES INSECT PHOBIA?

It’s hard to be precise, though sometimes an unpleasant experience such as
being badly stung by a wasp or bee may trigger it. These stings can be painful,
so we all try to avoid them, but most people can cope with an occasional
insect sting over the years without becoming phobic. There are no really
dangerous insects and spiders found in Britain, and very few people have
serious allergies to insect bites. Some people no doubt learn their insect
phobia from their parents. If mother screams when she finds a spider, the
children may well do so too. But on the whole, most people find that their
phobia develops gradually, or comes and goes over a long period, and no particular
cause or trigger is involved.
In any event, it is seldom worth spending a lot of time and energy on ‘rooting
out the cause’. The point is to learn to control the phobia.

HOW CAN I OVERCOME MY PHOBIA?

People with phobias have, as said, become ‘conditioned’ to produce the fear
reaction in situations that aren’t really dangerous. The best way to counter
this is by ‘de-conditioning’: training themselves to react correctly. This
is done by gradual exposure to the things they fear, experiencing the fears
without running away, and so ‘desensitising’ themselves to that lash of anxiety
which insists that only flight is an option. This process needs commitment
from the sufferer.  Sometimes anxiety is so high, the person is so sensitised
to fear, that he or she cannot contemplate resisting it. Basically, so much
energy is going in to avoiding what is seen as an insuperable problem that
there is nothing left, or so the person perceives it, for trying to recover.
In such a case a short course of anti-anxiety medication might be useful,
perhaps a benzodiazepine. This won’t cure the phobia, but it may reduce the
physical symptoms to a point where the person concerned feels that countering
with desensitising techniques is, at least, feasible.

… we have learned our irrational fears, but we can also unlearn them …

The idea is simple, and it does not necessarily require the help of professionals,
but it does call for a fair amount of courage and determination. Family and
friends can help make self-treatment much easier to manage, and this is also
why many people prefer to join a self-help group where they can obtain support
from people who have similar problems.
Anyone who decides to try desensitisation needs to draw up a personal ‘training
programme’. This means working out where they are now, deciding where they
want to be at the end, and fitting as many gradual  ‘exposure’ steps
in between as they need.

1. Fear of spiders

Here is an example of how self-exposure steps for a serious fear of spiders
(arachnophobia) could be ‘graded’:

Step 1:     Draw a small circle on a piece of paper, then
draw lines through the circle for legs.
Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version
you can     manage.
Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of spiders.
Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
Step 5:     Look at videos.
Step 6:     Look at a small dead spider in a sealed jar (first
at a distance, then closer).
Step 7:     Then at a live one in a sealed jar (first at a
distance, then closer).
Step 8:     Then in a partly opened jar; then more and more
open, etc.

It is important to work out what exactly it is about spiders that frightens
you. Is it their look? The long twiggy legs that some kinds have? The way
they move? The thought that they might bite you?     If you
don’t work out the precise nature of your fear you may waste time trying
to overcome something that isn’t a real problem.

… spiders have always lived with us, and they have never harmed a single
person …

You should also bear in mind that although phobias tend to strike ‘across
the board’, possibly creating a fear of all kinds of spiders, and even all
insects as well, overcoming these fears can be a much more piecemeal process.
This does not mean that you have to go through a desensitisation programme
for every kind of insect and spider you might possibly meet, but if you succeed
with one particular species, such as house spiders, don’t feel you have failed
if you are still at a phobic level with other insects such as moths. Just
start again on the moths, at whatever ‘step level’ you need. The skill and
confidence you built up on the spiders will help you tackle the moths much
more quickly.

It is worth remembering that none of the numerous species of spiders native
to Britain is capable of harming a human being. On the contrary, they help
us by catching flies and other insect pests.

2. Fear of crane flies

Crane flies (“Daddy long-legs”) are larger members of the mosquito family,
but unlike the latter they do not sting or bite. They are flimsy, fragile
and highly seasonal. For most of the year there are none at all about, but
in the summer months they often appear in large numbers, hatching from grubs
which live on grass roots underground. They often come inside houses, sometimes
attracted by electric lights, but they do not seem to survive long indoors.
A self-exposure programme for severe crane fly phobia could be very similar
to one for spiders and other insects:

Step 1:     Draw a small rough crane fly
shape on (with lines for legs) on a
piece of paper.
Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version
you can     manage.
Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of crane flies.
Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
Step 5:     Look at a video if you can find one.
Step 6:     Look at a dead one in a sealed jar (first at a
distance, then closer).
Step 7:     Then at a live one in a sealed jar (first at a
distance, then closer).
Step 8:     Then in a partly opened jar; then more and more
open, etc.
Step 9:    Look at one through a closed window, then gradually
open
the window more and more.
Step 10:    Look at one from a doorway,
then move closer to it, then closer still, etc.

As with spiders, it is useful to work out what it is about crane flies that
frightens you. Is it their look (with those long bent legs)? Or the way they
fly? Or their touch? Or that they may fly into your face? If you don’t establish
the particular reason why you are afraid, you could be wasting time trying
to overcome something that isn’t the real problem.
If the fear includes getting them in your hair, wearing a hair net or shower
cap and keeping a good fly swat handy may help during your exposure work.
If the swat handle isn’t long enough, you could find some way to extend it.
You can gradually dispense with the headgear and swat as you proceed with
the steps.

3. Fear of wasps and bees

These creatures are also seasonal. During the winter most wasps and bees
die, leaving only a queen and a few helpers hibernating in well-protected
nests. Neither insect is remotely interested in human beings, but they are
equipped with a nasty sting. Wasp stings are ‘repeaters’ and they can use
them several times to defend themselves against attack. However, the stings
are mainly there to kill insect prey, which is what wasps eat for most of
the year; they are not aggressive towards humans. The honeybee’s sting, on
the other hand, is strictly a suicide weapon. Once used, it cannot be retracted,
and the bee dies. For this reason, honey bee’s only sting as a last resort.
(Many bumblebees do not sting at all.)
Almost all bee and wasp stings are accidental – caused by people sitting
on the insects or brushing against them without realising. Wasps are a particular
nuisance in late summer, when their numbers are greatest and they develop
an appetite for fruit and sugar. They often become ‘drunk’ and drowsy from
overeating, and this is when they can find their way into unlikely spots
such as clothing or the folds of curtains. A certain amount of caution is
advisable at these times of year if there are a lot of wasps about.

… bees – remarkable and fascinating creatures …

Honeybees are very remarkable creatures – the only domesticated insect. Millions
of hives of bees are kept all round the world for the sake of the honey they
produce. The extraordinary ability of bees to navigate accurately over many
miles to find flowers, and then to communicate this information to each other
using a strange ‘dance’, are a fascinating subject, well worth reading more
about. Indeed, finding out the facts about the complex natural history of
insects will help you deal with your fears of them – as well as dispelling
old wives’ tales.
Most people suffer a few bee and wasp stings during their lifetime, and though
it hurts, there are no long-term ill effects. There are, however, a small
number of people who are at serious risk because they are highly allergic
to the venom in insect stings. Anyone who suspects that they may be allergic
should see their doctor for tests and make sure they have the appropriate
medication available during the summer months. This fact (the possibility
of allergy) should not be used as a ‘good’ reason for the fear; particularly
it should not be used to instil fear in children.  As said, if in doubt,
organise some tests.
Before starting on a desensitisation programme for bees or wasps, it is advisable
to work out what it is about them that causes the fear. Is it the look, or
the sound of them? If it is the buzzing noise, then the self-exposure work
should concentrate on this noise, not on the insects themselves (after all,
many things including power tools make a similar buzz).
If the fear is of the sting, decide whether it is the thought of pain or
perhaps of death that worries you most. There is no risk of death unless
you have an acute allergy – and this is something you can have checked as
mentioned. Pain can be eased with various ointments and sprays designed specifically
for insect bites and stings. Your local chemist can advise you about which
to buy.

Here is straightforward set of self-exposure steps for wasp phobia:

Step 1:     Draw a small rough wasp shape (with lines for
legs)
on a piece of paper.
Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version
you can     manage.
Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of wasps.
Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
Step 5:     Look at a video if you can find one.
Step 6:     Look at a dead wasp in a sealed jar (first at
a distance, then closer).
Step 7:     Then at a live one in a sealed jar (first at a
distance, then closer).
Step 8:     Then in a partly opened jar; then more and more
open, etc.
Step 9:    Look at one through a closed window, then gradually
open
the window more and more.
Step 10:    Look at one from a doorway,
then move closer to it, then closer still, etc.

4. Fear of moths

Like spiders and crane flies, moths are completely harmless to humans: they
cannot bite or sting us at all. They are also rather helpless – being soft-bodied
and very easy to injure or crush. If you are afraid of moths, have you worked
out what precisely triggers the fear? Is it the look of them, their rather
hairy or feathery bodies?  Or is it the way they tend to crash about
blindly and sometimes get into your hair? Some people secretly fear that
insects will get into their ears, mouths or noses, perhaps laying eggs there.
(Needless to say, moths do not do this kind of thing.) If you know this before
you start your self-exposure programme, you can avoid wasting time on something
that is not the real problem. If ‘getting in my hair’ is part of it, you
could wear a shower cap and wield a swat, as we suggested with crane flies.
A set of self-exposure steps for moth phobia will be almost exactly like
those for other insects, except that it needs to take account of the fact
that moths mainly come out at night, and are attracted by lights.

Step 1:     Draw a small rough moth shape on a piece of paper.
Step 2:     Work up to the biggest and most accurate version
you can     manage.
Step 3:     Look at black and white photos of moths.
Step 4:     Look at colour photos.
Step 5:     Look at a video if you can find one.
Step 6:     Look at a dead moth in a sealed jar (first at
a distance, then closer).
Step 7:     Then at a live one in a sealed jar (first at a
distance, then closer).
Step 8:     Then in a partly opened jar; then more and more
open, etc.
Step 9:    Look at one through a closed window (do this at
night: have a
light hanging outside, and turn the
inside lights off; then
gradually have the light moved closer). Then open the window
more and more, etc.
Step 10:    Look at them from a doorway, then move further
towards
them, then further, etc.

SOME HINTS FOR SELF-EXPOSURE WORK

The first step in the programme can be very simple – perhaps staying in a
situation that can just be managed now, but for a little longer than before.

The steps can be as large or as small as necessary and big steps can be broken
down into smaller ones. But each step should challenge the anxiety a little
more than the last.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the size of the task. As a rule, the steps become
steadily easier as you work through them.

Don’t expect to be completely free from anxiety before you leave each step
and go onto the next – it will go completely in its own time as you progress.

It is useful to work out what exactly about the insect is frightening. Is
it the shape, or the sound, or the way it flutters or crashes about? Is it
the fear of the sting? If so, what are you afraid of – pain? death? Why do
you think you are especially at risk? If you don’t work out the real focus
of your fears, you could be wasting time trying to overcome the wrong problem.

Find out if you are allergic if you think this would help, or arm yourself
with some medication that counteracts stings.

Reading about spiders, wasps, bees and other insects can help.

Do the exercises as often as you can. You are trying to build up positive
memories to replace all the bad ones of being beaten by the phobia, and too
long a gap between efforts makes this more difficult.

An hour or so at a time and repeating this every day is best. Waiting until
you feel ‘strong’ or until you cannot avoid it any longer is not a positive
approach.

Keep a ‘self-exposure diary’ detailing the exposure work you have undertaken
and noting down the way you felt about it.

Do enough at each step to raise your anxiety. You are trying to get used
to a level of physical symptoms that you can manage, and where you are in
control.

If it is possible to find someone to work with, who can talk to you calmly
and positively while you are doing the steps (and not over-sympathising or
endlessly asking how bad you are feeling) this can help.

Relaxation techniques can be helpful in tackling the next step, and it is
easy to practice relaxation in the privacy of your own home. But if the steps
you have chosen prove impossible, of if you are depressed or have other severe
anxiety problems, then professional help from a clinical psychologist or
psychiatrist may be needed.

You can reach such professionals through your GP; and in any case we recommend
that you contact your GP and talk to him or her about your disorder.

PANIC

Many people with phobic conditions are terrified of having a panic attack
if they should find themselves near the thing they fear and be unable to
‘escape’ quickly enough.

Panic is an very unpleasant experience, and while it is happening it is very
hard to think rationally. Typically, people who are panicking feel that they
are about to have a heart attack, or go mad, or lose control of their bowels,
or run amok and injure themselves and others. The urge to prevent this happening
produces a powerful desire to escape from the situation immediately. In reality,
the imagined horrors simply do not occur. Anxiety Care has never come across
a single instance of someone having a heart attack, stroke, or brain haemorrhage,
or going mad as a result of a panic attack. People don’t collapse or have
‘fits’ during panic either.

The worst that can happen is that they feel faint or dizzy and have to sit
down. ‘Losing control’ is very rare. People do not shout and scream, or foam
at the mouth, murder children or mow down passers-by during a panic. Even
in the few cases where someone has claimed to have lost control, the reality
is a little different. One person described to Anxiety Care how she ‘rushed
screaming out of the house’ – but it turned out that she had taken the time
to close the doors and windows first. Another ‘kicked insanely at the car
window to get out’, but thoughtfully removed her shoes first to avoid doing
any damage.

Panic is basically an internal event. It may feel as though the mind and
body are breaking up, but the truth is that other people seldom even notice
when someone is having an attack, especially in a busy place. They are too
busy thinking about their own affairs, and even if they see someone run out
of the park, they are likely to assume there is a ‘sensible’ reason – like
being late for a bus. In any event, they will have forgotten all about it
in a minute or two.

The boring truth about panic is that although it feels dreadful at the time,
and although the overdose of adrenaline and other chemicals can leave a person
feeling drained and shaken:

panic does not cause any permanent harm

it does not drive people insane

panic attacks only last a short time,  and then they subside

they subside irrespective of whether you stay in the `panic situation’
or ‘escape’.

Final notes
If you enlist the help of a friend or family member in the work of overcoming
your phobia, read the booklet ‘Self-treatment for Phobias’, available on
this website and make sure they read it too. Ensure that the helper has no
preconceived ideas about overcoming fears.  Too many people favour the
‘in the deep end’ approach and you do not need to have the object of your
terror suddenly waved in your face in the guise of helping.  If your
partner is not sympathetic to your plight, don’t choose him or her to help.
Some animal phobics coming to Anxiety Care have detailed partners and family
members who have used their phobic fear against them as a means of controlling
their behaviour, or simply controlling their lives.  If in doubt about
this it is always safer to believe your eyes than your ears.  That is,
don’t listen to what a person says he or she is doing; turn off the volume
and watch what they are actually doing.

Finally, there are no extra points for getting better the most painful or
difficult way.  Choose appropriate steps; small amounts of anxiety are
just as effective as large amounts in retraining that part of the brain that
controls anxiety reactions.  Never be afraid of breaking up steps into
smaller steps if there is a sticking point.  And never, ever use a sticking
point as a reason to give up.  The only failure is not trying.

The approach described in this leaflet follows the standard principles of
behavioural therapy as practised by psychiatrists and psychologists in the
NHS and throughout the world.

 


The basic reference work on which we have drawn is Fears, Phobias and
Rituals by Professor I M Marks, published by Oxford University Press (1987)