It's not exactly every 17 years!

Entomophobia Self-Help Tips


Three days in a row of hot, muggy 90-degree weather, and they haven’t emerged yet, at least not where I live or work! Rumor has it that those areas that don’t have cicadas now won’t see them at all — or, to put it in UMD entomologist Michael Raupp’s words, “they are going to be in for a very bad case of cicada envy.” Um, okay. If you say so, sir…

I still can’t believe that I have escaped the plague! I actually don’t even want to believe it, for fear I jinx it… They are out and about happily infesting neighborhoods and rupturing eardrums only a few miles away. The Capital Weather Gang at The Washington Post is doing a pretty good job tracking them. They’re talking about a “small pocket” in Arlington, which is really making me feel queasy and paranoid every time I go out. I emailed them to know where exactly in Arlington this “small pocket” is located and it appears to be at safe distance, at Potomac Overlook Regional Park. The rest of Arlington County and the City of Alexandria in Northern Virginia are clear as well as the District of Columbia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland. But still…

cicadaf-burgThey are currently at their peak in North Carolina and Virginia. Some parts of the Washington, DC metropolitan region in Northern Virginia are, indeed, infested. There are large pockets in Fairfax and Loudoun counties and most of Prince William County. It’s actually a mess pretty much anywhere south of Fairfax County. Some friends made a trip to Fredericksburg today and sent me this lovely picture of a beast that landed on one of them, almost crawling down his shirt through the sleeve… Eek! (Apparently, this guy did freak out a bit…)

In some areas of New Jersey, they are already in full force, while in others they have just emerged. They have completely swarmed Staten Island, one of the five boroughs of New York City, where they seem to be especially concentrated on the South Shore. They are starting to sing in the Hudson Valley and some parts of Connecticut, but in some areas of the New England state they are just now emerging. An unusually cool spring has delayed their arrival, especially in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, but they’re already making an appearance there, too.

On the WNYC map, the whole East Coast with the exception of the southern- and northernmost states is literally lighting up! (Someone had geography issues, though, placing their New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina sightings in Maine, Wisconsin, Georgia, Texas, Missouri, Colorado and even California…  So don’t freak out if you live in those states! Brood II will not visit you!)

Obviously, entompohobes in the affected areas must be going through a really excruciating ordeal right now. For all of you, I decided to interview a coworker and friend who holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees in Psychology and used to practice therapy back in her home country, asking her several questions about entomophobia, how “stupid” it is to suffer from it, how to treat it and what you can do to improve your condition if you can’t see a therapist at the moment.

Why do some people have a phobia of bugs? Is there even a reason?
Yes, from a psychological viewpoint, there are several reasons for a person to have any kind of fear. I will just talk about the basic ones.

The first one is based on the principle of classical conditioning. When a neutral object gets paired with a feared/unpleasant object or feeling a couple of times, the neutral object becomes the feared object. For example, a bug by itself may be harmless, but if it evokes feelings of disgust, creepiness, etc. for a person, these feelings get associated with the bug, which then becomes an object of fear.

Another reason is based on Freud’s theory, which says that a fear/phobia is due to a childhood conflict, which was either repressed or displaced onto another neutral object. For example, if I am scared of my father, it would create a conflict in my mind; and thus to resolve the conflict, my mind would unconsciously transfer my fear onto a neutral and harmless object like a bug.

A third reason is based on observational learning. If you, as a child, see an adult reacting with extreme fear and negative emotions like screaming and running away whenever he/she sees a bug, you would learn that the bug is an object to be feared, and thus, you may also start fearing the bug.

And finally, the fourth reason is based on biological preparedness. We humans are biologically programmed to fear certain objects, which is beneficial to the human race as it aided in its survival. Being scared of snakes is something that has been passed on to us since the prehistoric era, because a snake bite could prove to be fatal. It is quite possible that a fear can be generalized to other similar objects, and we may be biologically programmed to fear creepy-crawlies like bugs.

Now that Cicadaphobia has been featured in the news, I keep reading unflattering comments about my own entomophobia (such as that I’m “mentally disturbed,” “whacked,” “an idiot,” or “a ninnie”). From a scientific point of view, what can you say to people who come to such quick conclusions and other entomophobes who aren’t vocal because they’re afraid of being ridiculed?
To people who are quick to jump to conclusions like that, I would firstly ask them to look within, reflect back on their own lives and then say emphatically that they have no fears whatsoever — can they do that?  I don’t think so — each and every one of us has some fear or the other. Some people may be afraid of heights, some people may be afraid of needles and injections, some may have a phobia of dogs, while some may fear crowded places.  Some of us are more aware of that fear, and some of us are not — for some, the fear is debilitating, for others it’s not; but the bottom line is that each and every person has some kind of fear.  So, my dear friends, if you don’t have a phobia of bugs, think before you make a rude comment; and please show some sensitivity. And if you still need more convincing, please read my response to the first question, which highlights the reasons for having a fear/phobia.

To other entomophobes who are not vocal, I would just like to say that there is nothing to feel ashamed of. As I just mentioned, people can have several kinds of fears — the fear of bugs is one of the most common ones. So if you have a bug phobia, it doesn’t make you less of a person at all. And if you want to do something about it, please do not hesitate in asking for help. Psychologists see several clients with bug phobias and other related phobias all the time; and the encouraging part is that most of them respond very well to therapy.

How do you treat a bug phobia?
Psychologists generally use a technique called “systematic desensitization” to treat any kind of a phobia/fear. In this technique, the client is firstly asked to identify a fear hierarchy making a list of situations associated with the feared object from low to high levels of related fear/anxiety — for example, seeing pictures of a bug would be on top of the list if it causes the least anxiety, holding a toy bug would be somewhere in between if it causes moderate anxiety, while holding a real bug would be at the bottom if it causes maximum anxiety. The second step would be to teach the client some relaxation techniques that he can apply when he is in presence of the feared object. And finally, in the last step, the therapist begins by exposing the client to the least feared situation on his fear hierarchy. If the client gets anxious/scared, he is asked to relax himself and apply the principles of relaxation training that he has received. Once the client is absolutely comfortable with the first level, the therapist will move on to the next; and so on and so forth using the same method. Thus, the client is very gradually exposed to the feared object. At each level, he is going closer to the actual goal.

What advice can you give to entomophobes now in the midst of the cicada invasion who for economic or other reasons can’t see a therapist? Do you have any self-help tips?
Entomophobes who can’t see a therapist for economic or other reasons could try a couple of things on their own, provided their phobia is not very severe.

First, as described in the previous answer, people at home can make a fear hierarchy, and try to begin working on it by starting with the least feared situation and moving on to the most feared situation. For example, once they are habituated and comfortable with seeing a picture of a bug in a book, they can try to watch a video of bugs, and so on. They can keep a friend or a family member with them for moral support when they attempt to do this. It is possible that they may not reach the most feared level, and they should stop if the anxiety is too much to deal with.  But if they are able to master the first few levels, that should provide them with motivation and instill faith in themselves, and probably encourage them to go on.

Second, they can try to learn a relaxation technique if possible — maybe a friend who knows yoga can be of help — or if they just surf the internet and search for relaxation techniques, I am sure they can find something useful.

And finally, there are a good number of books available in the market, that help to deal with anxieties, fears and phobias. Books that are based on cognitive therapy usually teach a person how to restructure his thoughts to deal with anxiety-provoking situations in an effective manner.

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