Common Insect Phobias and How to Treat Them

Insect Grasshopper
Fernando Trabanco Fotografía/Moment/Getty Image

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

Common insect phobias 

  • Fear of ants: Myrmecophobia
  • Fear of bettles: 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 mosquitos: Anopheliphobia
  • Fear of wasps: Spheksophobia 

Many entomophobia sufferers try to avoid outdoor gatherings or any situations where there is a possibility of coming into contact with insects. This disorder impacts various aspects of life including work, school, and relationships. A person with an insect phobia is aware that they are behaving irrationally, but feel unable to control their reactions.

Why Are People Afraid of Bugs?

Many people have an aversion to insects for good reason. Some bugs actually 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 serious diseases including Lyme disease, Q fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, malaria, and African sleeping sickness. The association of bugs with disease makes us wary of bugs and creates a desire to avoid them in order to keep safe.

Another reason that people dislike insects is because of how they look. Insect anatomy is totally foreign to ours — some bugs have many more appendages, eyes, or other body parts than humans. The way insects move may also give some people a creepy feeling or even the sensation that something is crawling on them. To others, insects encroach upon their sense of environmental control. They invade our personal space and may even crawl on personal hygiene items. This invasion upsets our sense of safety and cleanliness.

Insects can also evoke feelings of disgust or revulsion. This instinctive response varies culturally and is related to our natural tendency to reject things that may make us sick.

What Causes Insect Phobia?

While there is no exact cause of insect phobia, people may develop an exaggerated fear of bugs due to a negative encounter. Should someone get stung by a bee or bitten by a fire ant, the painful experience may cause them to overreact to the presence of a bug. Fear of insects may also be a learned response from the behavior of those around them. Children who have witnessed a parent or loved one react with fear to an insect have a tendency to respond to insects the same way. Those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury developing from a severe blow to the head are more likely to develop some type of phobia. In addition, individuals suffering from depression and those with substance abuse problems may also develop insect or other types of phobias.

A phobia is an anxiety disorder that causes a person to react irrationally to and avoid the thing they fear, in spite of the fact that there may be little or no danger posed. Stress is a helpful reaction that prepares us to respond to situations that require focused attention. Stress is our body's natural reaction to potential danger (a barking dog) or to exhilarating situations (riding a roller coaster). When experiencing these types of situations, our nervous system sends signals for the release of adrenaline. This hormone prepares our bodies to fight or to flee. Adrenaline increases blood flow to the heart, lungs, and muscles increasing oxygen availability in these areas in preparation for physical activity. Adrenaline also heightens our senses making us more aware of the details of a situation. An area of the brain called the amygdala manages the fight or flight response. Those with insect and other phobias experience this heightened state of apprehension when faced with a particular situation or object that they fear. This disorder impacts both physical and psychological activity to the extent that the person has an exaggerated response to the object of fear, even when it is not warranted. 

Insect Phobia Symptoms

Individuals with insect phobias may 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. Some experience a deep sense of gloom or feelings of being overwhelmed that may manifest 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

In extreme cases, the person is not even able to look at a picture or drawing of an insect or may lose all control in an attempt to escape an insect. These individuals are unable to conduct a normal lifestyle. Those with phobias understand that their reactions are irrational, but they are not able to prevent them.

Insect Phobia Treatment

Insect phobias are commonly treated with cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy. This dual approach focuses on dealing with the disgust factor, fear, and anxiety associated with insects as well as the behavioral response to insects. To help deal with the emotional response, therapists teach relaxation techniques so that the person can learn to calm themselves down. Therapists also help the person identify and retrain thought patterns that reinforce feelings of fear. By doing so, the person can begin to think more rationally about the insects they fear. This starts with learning about insects through reading books and magazines, preferably illustrated, with details about insects. Learning about the positive roles that insects play in the environment will help these individuals to have a more balanced view of insects. How we think influences our emotions and our emotions influence our behaviors.

To help deal with the behavioral response to a feared insect, therapists often use exposure therapy. This involves graduated exposure to an insect, which may start with something as simple as thinking about an insect. In one case study, a boy with insect phobia was exposed to increasing levels of contact with crickets. This 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.

Gradual exposure to a feared insect helps the person to gradually face their fears until they get to the point where they are no longer anxious around insects. Exposure therapy has been found to be effective at retraining the body's learned defense response. Defense behavior mechanisms are automatic responses of the body's nervous system that help to keep us safe from danger. If we consider something to be dangerous, our body responds accordingly to prevent us from experiencing harm and to preserve life. So when a person with insect phobia responds in a way that prevents them from being harmed, the behavior is reinforced in the brain. This reinforcement occurs even if there is no realistic expectation of harm.

Desensitization to contact with an insect, helps the person with insect phobia learn that the actual consequences of being around or coming into contact with a bug are not what they envisioned in their over-exaggerated imaginations. Over time, the brain will learn that the exaggerated response is not necessary. Using positive reinforcement along with desensitization methods is thought to help the person associate positive consequences with insects. For instance, a reward may be offered to the person for holding an insect in hand for 20 seconds. This helps the person to view insects in a more positive light. With proper treatment, people with insect phobias have been able to greatly diminish their fear of insects or overcome their fear 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.