How exactly do you deal with irrational reactions to insects and spiders?

by InquilineKea1 min read16th Jun 201127 comments


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Okay, so for several years, I've been doing a fairly good job of excising out most of my irrational beliefs and fears. 

The one that remains, however, is my fear of bugs and spiders. I'll SCREAM if I see one, dead or alive. And if there's one in my food, then I'm going to throw the entire plate out.

Is it common for LWers to have irrational reactions to bugs and spiders?

I know that there is "desensitization therapy", as highlighted by a Scientific American Frontiers episode a decade ago (where gradual exposure to the stimulus - a spider) - can desensitize a person with arachnophobia over time. But this can really only happen in controlled settings. In uncontrolled settings, such interaction can give you nightmares. 

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How often do you encounter bugs or spiders, and how much of a burden on your life does this aversion impose? Is it getting worse, better, or neither?

Your reaction may be stronger than others', but that may not in itself be reason enough to invest lots of time and energy in self-modifying to not have this strong reaction. Especially if it's not getting worse over time.

Years ago I had a similar "yuck behaviour" regarding food, I would refuse to eat anything that had been in contact with even a small bug: for instance I'd generally turn down lettuce, which when purchased in heads almost always comes with a few "residents". (No screaming though.) It always turned my stomach upside down to see folks (e.g. my parents or my wife) do things like cut out part of an apple that had a worm in it and eat the rest.

Over the years and without doing anything special I just got over it.

Oops. Apparently "got over it" was wrong (or at best premature). Tonight my appetite has been defeated by a chinese cabbage riddled with holes, even though they probably cover less than 10% of any given leaf's surface.

I'm less squeamish than I used to be, too.

For example, I'm willing to eat cooked fish with the head on-- this was intolerable for me when I was a kid.

I wonder if becoming less squeamish over time is typical.

If it's typical, then I'm atypical. I'm much more squeamish than when I was a kid. As an 8 or 9-year-old I played with live worms and caterpillars and various bugs, and was equally fascinated by the dead ones, even sometimes cutting them open to see the insides. I thought it would be cool to take an anatomy class and dissect cadavers.

Now I cannot bear the sight of bugs. Just looking at them gives me a visceral feeling of horror. Touching them freaks me right out. And I'm pretty sure if I had to dissect a cadaver I'd scream and vomit.

[-][anonymous]10y 6

Is it common for LWers to have irrational reactions to bugs and spiders?

It is common for humans, LW or not, to have rational (or maybe arational is more accurate?) aversions to bugs, spiders, snakes, and other critters that could poison us in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Overcoming this through learning and exposure is commonly required to get over the fear.

You need at least one person to assist you in constructing your controlled setting. Maybe you could use a local pet store as your controlled environment.

Exposure therapy is the way to go, to desensitize as you mentioned. Here is a plan

Good luck

Is it common for LWers to have irrational reactions to bugs and spiders?

Is there any reason to think that the fraction of arthopod-phobes (?) would be any higher or lower among us than among the general propulation?

Actually, it would be interesting to test this. and show that people who are "high" on disgust tend to be more conservative. But if we know anything on the demographics here, it's that Republicans are almost non-existent on here, and that people here generally fit in categories that are "low" on disgust.

Personally, I'm totally fine with things many people find morally disgusting, like incest. Moral disgust practically doesn't exist in my psyche. But for some reason this doesn't extend to arthropods.

This has helped me stamp out the last vestiges of my arachnophobia. It's a window with a realistically moving spider that follows your cursors. The reason it helped me is because I knew I could close the window with a single click at any time and the fact that I had complete control over its movement. This amount of control gave me enough self confidence to deal with real life spiders.

I have a phobia of certain arthropods, especially of big ones that fly. Hornets and bumblebees are the worst. Dragonflies aren't easy too, but at least they rarely fly inside a room. Somehow the fear is connected to the label insect, so after I learned that spiders are not insects, my aversion to them has weakened (but not disappeared completely). I could rate arthropods on a scale measuring my fear:

  1. Crustaceans (except woodlice): no problem at all, I can eat them.
  2. Anything smaller than 5 mm in length (other dimensions play a role too, the smaller the better): I can touch or crush them.
  3. Woodlice, centipedes, silverfish, harvestmen, smaller butterflies, caterpillars, ants, small beetles: can touch them, but crushing them makes me feel uneasy. Perhaps scorpions belong to this class.
  4. Most spiders, flies, moths, big butterflies, big beetles, solifugae, true bugs: I try to avoid touching them at all.
  5. Wasps, bees, dragonflies, cicadas, anything else which is big, flying, noisy or hairy: when one is near, I can't concentrate on doing anything. Being closed in a room together with few such beasts and no weapon (like a newspaper) is a nightmare.

I have no phobia of spiders and bugs. They can walk on me if they want to, I don't care. But I have a phobia about crushing bugs. I never kill them, and I ask people not to kill bugs when I am around. When I spot one in our flat, I carefully capture it, and let it go outside. It is not that I care for them this much, but I don't want them to lose their tiny legs and other body parts. Maybe the most irrational thing about my phobia is that I love eating shrimp. Probably it would be trivial to treat my phobia with some ad hoc desensitization session, but it doesn't affect my quality of life at all, so I am fine with it.

This sounds a lot like signalling of some kind, like motherliness of capability of compassion or the like.

(Remark: I have just looked up the definition of phobia, and I realized that my condition is not a phobia. I don't feel any fear, just a very strong urge to avoid situations where bugs are crushed around me.)

I don't think signalling has much to do with my case. Most people find the sight and sound of bugs being crushed repulsive, and my reaction is basically the same, only stronger.

But there is probably a signalling-based explanation of why I let cockroaches go free rather than flushing them down the toilet. Flushing a bug down the toilet doesn't trigger my aversion at all. But after all the trouble with capturing them (they are very fast), letting them free feels like the proper thing to do, even though it is quite irrational.

The crushing thing might still be related to a signal even if it's less direct. But it might not as well.

Also, being signalling means it might be less irrational then you think, especially if you're around non-rationalist humans. Because, they'll think of you as kinder and trust you more and stuff.

I like and may actively seek to touch/have land on me butterflies, most moths, ladybugs, dragonflies, katydids, soft fluffy caterpillars (used to be a great fan of gypsy moth ones in particular) and some attractive harmless beetles, although I would not invite any of these creatures to live in my home. I am capable of geeshing small disliked bugs (that don't run too fast or fly away) barehanded as long as I expect to be able to wash my hands. Large disliked bugs that move away from me, but not too fast or under anything, I can geesh with an implement without being too shaken up about it. Large disliked bugs that approach me, or move very quickly, or get into an inaccessible place such as under the microwave, freak me out until they die, but I can sometimes still manage it myself if there's no one else to call in for help. I'm especially freaked out by the phenotype my family refers to as "lottalegdo" - a self-explanatory term except that it doesn't include spiders.

When freaked out by a bug more than whoever is nearby, I solicit assistance in causing the bug's death. When I am the less freaked out party I slay bugs for others.

When freaked out by a bug more than whoever is nearby, I solicit assistance in causing the bug's death. When I am the less freaked out party I slay bugs for others.

Bigger Not Necessarily Better, When It Comes to Brains:

Tiny insects could be as intelligent as much bigger animals, despite only having a brain the size of a pinhead...

Interesting replies, everyone!

Hm, I've just realized - my phobia of arthropods doesn't extend to a few arthropods. Ants are notable since they're the only insect that I can tolerate touching for some reason (I wonder if this is common among others too?) Worm-like creatures (like maggots) are the WORST though (though maybe I could tolerate ant larvae - maybe early exposure to SimAnt helps?)

Daddy long-legs aren't that bad either

With crustaceans, the big ones aren't scary. But I'm still freaked out about isopods (including the GIANT isopods on the seafloor).

Surprisingly enough, my fear of arthropods also intersects with my fear of death. The fact is - arthropods can die at ANY time, and the possibility that they might die (of natural causes - squishing is a bit different) also FRIGHTENS me

What about fireflies? They're very tame. Stick out your hand near one and there's a good chance it'll land on you and just stay there for a while.

Interesting idea - I dunno - I've never lived in an area where they come into homes. Where do you live?

Into homes? Oh, it didn't occur to me that you were restricting to that context. I may have seen them indoors but certainly neither often or in numbers.

Edit: That said, it shouldn't be hard to bring a few indoors if you really want to do so. :P

I don't have any phobias but I'd be interested to know if anybody has managed to overcome fears/phobias with greater knowledge. The closest experience I've had is that I started to enjoy the taste of mushrooms (which I previously found repulsive) after taking a mycology class. I realised that what I found repulsive about mushrooms was partially due to ignorance (they're an odd food to categorise). Insects and spiders are odd, difficult to categorise beasts too, so perhaps knowledge would help in addition to exposure.

This think jmed's link has the right idea.

The key to desensitization, in my experience at least, is to be able to force calmness during the whatever is causing the nervousness/stress/fear durring exposure. Start off with the smallest stimuli that invokes fear and do your best to be calm and relaxed. Deep breathing at first and latter activities that require some attention like reading, cooking, stretching, etc. After the current level of stimulus does not interrupt these activities increase the level of stimulus and repeat.

If no progress is made in a month I would recommend continuing the effort, but shifting focus to conquering smaller fears first. Take advantage of real life situations that make you nervous/stressed/fearful and do your best to calm yourself. Do scary/action movies get your heart pumping? Go to a movie let yourself get wrapped up in the movie and then try to calm yourself down.

actually what you described as desensiztion therapy seems more like exposure therapy to me. this seems to be a good explanation of systematic desensitization. This works even in the relatively uncontrolled setting of being by yourself.

By attempting genocide.

Sometimes if I'm being irrationally creeped out by something it helps me to visualise it as being made of atoms. Think of the atoms making up the scary spider. The atoms aren't scary. The molecules made up by the atoms aren't scary. The spider is composed entirely of these molecules, therefore the spider isn't scary.

Though some LWers may run into a problem with this method, given the purported tendency to abhor comforting falsehoods.

My reaction isn't nearly so strong. If the spider is in an innocuous place and doesn't look jumpy then my first inclination is to look away and pretend it's not there. But I try to force myself to sit there and stare at it for a while, and scream out "SPIDER! There is a SPIDER! Spider. Spider." in my mind, or half-shout out it if I'm sure no one is around, to train myself to not flinch away from things that are unpleasant, and to keep my mind from getting into the habit of thinking that if I ignore something it will go away.

Be careful what you wish for. Humans are made out of biases. We enjoy roller-coasters because of the "irrational" fear they give us. We enjoy watching zombie movies because zombies are scary, when actually they are fictional entities, which, if they existed, would be less dangerous than a lot of "normal" humans or many real diseases.

Watching movies or riding roller-coasters could be seen as "irrational" in and of itself, just like playing the lottery. But what is left of human values if you get rid of all this?