Common Insect Phobias and How to Treat Them

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Insect phobia, also called entomophobia, is an excessive or irrational fear of insects. This fear stems from disgust or revulsion associated with the appearance, activity, or number of insects. Reactions to a feared insect may range from mild annoyance to extreme terror.

Insect Phobias

Many people living with a form of entomophobia try to avoid outdoor gatherings or other situations where coming into contact with insects is a possibility. This disorder impacts various aspects of life, including work, school, and relationships. A person with an insect phobia is probably aware that he or she is behaving irrationally yet feels unable to control his or her reactions.

Common Insect Phobias 

  • Fear of ants: Myrmecophobia
  • Fear of beetles: Skathariphobia 
  • Fear of bees: Apiphobia
  • Fear of centipedes: Scolopendrphobia
  • Fear of cockroaches: Katsaridaphobia
  • Fear of crickets: Orthopterophobia
  • Fear of flies: Muscaphobia
  • Fear of moths: Mottephobia
  • Fear of mosquitoes: Anopheliphobia
  • Fear of wasps: Spheksophobia 

Why Are People Afraid of Bugs?

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Many people have an aversion to insects for a number of valid reasons. For one, some bugs live and feed on the human body. Insects including mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks can transmit diseases to humans. As they feed, they may transfer parasitic protozoans, bacteria, or other pathogens that can cause life-threatening diseases such as Lyme disease, Q fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, malaria, and African sleeping sickness. The association of bugs with disease can cause a wariness of insects and a desire to avoid them.

Insect appearance may be another reason that people fear bugs. Insect anatomy is starkly different from what is familiar—some bugs have many more appendages, eyes, or other body parts than humans.

The movement of insects can also be very disturbing to some. To others, insects are unpleasant because they interfere with a person's sense of control due to their great quantities and unpredictability. They invade personal space and can make a person feel unsafe or unclean.

People often experience a natural disdain for anything that feels threatening to their safety or well-being, and insects have this effect on many. It is only when the disdain becomes illogical fear that the condition is classified as a phobia.

What Causes Insect Phobia?

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While there is not always a precise cause of insect phobia, people may develop an exaggerated fear of bugs from a specific negative experience. Should someone get stung by a bee or be bitten by a fire ant, for example, the painful encounters may affect their opinion of all bugs.

Fear of insects may also be a learned response. Children who have witnessed a parent or loved one react with fear to an insect tend to respond similarly. There is also evidence to suggest that those who have suffered brain trauma or experience depression may be more susceptible to phobia development, insect or otherwise.

A Phobia's Effect on the Body

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A phobia is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to react irrationally to and avoid the thing they fear, regardless of whether the perceived danger is legitimate. Anxiety causes unwanted stress in impacted individuals.

Stress is naturally a helpful reaction that prepares us to respond to situations that require focused attention, such as danger or exhilaration. When experiencing these things, the nervous system sends signals for the release of adrenaline. This hormone prepares the body to either fight or flee, a response managed by an area of the brain called the amygdala. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the heart, lungs, and muscles, which in turn increases oxygen availability in these areas to prepare for upcoming physical activity. Adrenaline also heightens the senses to keep a person aware of his or her surroundings.

Those with phobias experience a heightened state of apprehension, brought on by increased adrenaline, when faced with the object of their fear. Their intense stress almost always causes anxiety. Phobias impact both physical and psychological activity by causing an unwarranted response to the stimulus at hand.

Insect Phobia Anxiety

Individuals with insect phobias experience varying degrees of anxiety. Some have mild reactions, while others may not be able to leave the house for fear of an insect encounter. A deep sense of gloom or feelings of being overwhelmed are also symptoms and could potentially manifest themselves as a panic attack.

Symptoms of Insect-Related Anxiety Include:

  • Nausea
  • Heart palpitations
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Profuse sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Shortness of breath

Insect Phobia Treatment

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Insect phobias are commonly treated with cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. This dual approach deals with the disgust, fear, and anxiety associated with and the behavioral responses to bugs until a person suffering from the phobia becomes more comfortable with experiences he or she fears, which in this case involve insects.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

To manage the emotional response to insects, therapists teach self-calming relaxation techniques and work to alter the patient's perspective about the object of his or her fear—insects. They help the person to identify the causes of their feelings and retrain their thoughts, allowing them to think more rationally about bugs.

They may accomplish this by studying insects, usually with illustrated books or magazines rather than those containing real photographs. Learning about the helpful roles that insects play in the environment can positively affect the way that insects are regarded by the person, which in turn alters their emotions and behaviors.

Exposure Therapy

To manage the behavioral response to insects, therapists often use exposure therapy. This practice involves gradual authentic exposure to an insect, beginning with thoughts and usually ending with regulated insect encounters. In one case study, a boy with insect phobia was exposed to increasing levels of contact with crickets. His treatment included:

  • Holding a jar of crickets.
  • Touching a cricket with his foot.
  • Standing in a room with crickets for 60 seconds.
  • Picking up a cricket with a gloved hand.
  • Holding a cricket with a bare hand for 20 seconds.
  • Allowing a cricket to crawl on his bare arm.

Safely and slowly increasing contact with a feared insect can help a person face his or her fears and reverse a learned defense response. It is important to reverse these because they are responses of the nervous system that protect the body from danger. When a person with insect phobia responds to insects in a way that he or she feels prevents them from being harmed, the behavior is reinforced in the brain.

Desensitization is the method by which a person confronts the object of their fear little by little, and it shows them that the actual consequences of encountering bugs are not usually as dangerous or harmful as they believed. Over time, the brain will then begin to reinforce this more healthy behavioral response to bugs. A person whose sensitivities to insects have been greatly reduced usually comes to associate more positive responses with insect interaction.

With proper treatment, people with insect phobias can diminish their fears or even overcome them entirely.

Sources

  • Cisler, Josh M., Bunmi O. Olatunji, and Jeffrey M. Lohr. “Disgust, Fear, and the Anxiety Disorders: A Critical Review.” Clinical psychology review 29.1 (2009): 34–46. PMC. Web. 25 Nov. 2017.
  • Jones, K M, and P C Friman. “A Case Study of Behavioral Assessment and Treatment of Insect Phobia.” Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 32.1 (1999): 95–98. PMC. Web. 25 Nov. 2017
  • Pachana, Nancy A, Rana M Woodward, and Gerard JA Byrne. “Treatment of Specific Phobia in Older Adults.” Clinical Interventions in Aging 2.3 (2007): 469–476. Print.