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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)

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