Mental Health

Ask Aviva: Bugged Out and Antsy

February 12, 2014

scaredspider.smallDear Aviva,

I have an embarrassing problem. I am really, really scared of bugs.  

I’m not just a little scared. When I see a bug I panic and shut down. I think part of it may be that I am afraid of becoming infested since then I might have to use chemicals to get rid of them and I don’t want to expose my baby to that.

My husband thinks that I need to go for therapy, but I really don’t want to. Is there something wrong with me?

-Bugged out and Antsy


Dear Bugged out and Antsy,

Hold on while I take a few deep breaths—your worry is so powerful that I think it radiated through my screen and landed in my sympathetic nervous system! Now my heart’s soaring above 100 bpm, my muscles have tightened up, and my breathing is becoming quick and shallow. Is that what goes on for you?

Well, I can’t answer your question until I calm myself down. Because when my body is in a state of fear, it won’t think clearly. This is because my rational prefrontal cortex goes on vacation and hands over the keys to my amygdala, my brain’s fear center.

So how am I going to handle this? Well, I’ll start by forcing my body to calm down, even if there’s good reason for it to be freaked out.

I’m going to try squeezing as many of my already tight muscles as hard as I can for a good 15 seconds, and then suddenly releasing. And then I will do some nice deep breathing, using my belly to pull the air in.

Ahh… That worked well enough to bring me back to myself. And it could do great things for you as well. But it won’t work in the gross face of a mobile exoskeleton. So I recommend you practice these techniques daily so that you can do them even when alarm bells start ringing.

Relaxation techniques on their own are enough to help you through an episode, but they won’t cure you of the fear. Certain types of therapy would effectively help by having you relax as you think about a bug, then look at a picture of a bug, then be in the room with a real bug and, finally, be holding a bug, perhaps while dancing to La Cucaracha. Well, all of that is true, sans the choreography. And it’s tailor-paced for you.

If you’re not quite ready just yet to feel a bug crawling up your arm, how about exploring some stuff with me? I am curious about what a bug means to you and I think you gave me some clues from your question.

One thing is that it means you may need to bring chemicals into your home and possibly expose your baby to harm. Well, harm to a baby is scary for anyone. Because a little baby in harm’s way could, G-d forbid, possibly lead to (start breathing now, sloooowly) serious illness, permanent injury, or even death. So it seems like if we follow that train of thought, a bug could mean doom for your child. This is a real possibility.

But is it probability? That is another story. Right now, we don’t care about probabilities. Right now we are focusing on what might be at the core of this fear. And look how sensible this is—seeing a bug may mean danger for your baby. Who wouldn’t respond with intense horror moviesque reactions to that?

That brings me to the next layer. You seem to feel like you are not quite normal for your reaction to bugs. You also think your husband thinks less of you for it. That, I would imagine, ups the ante when those ants go marching two by two.

When you see the bug, you get scared. Then, you think that most people you know don’t get this scared, and there may be something wrong with you. That, I venture, makes you even more scared.

And, oh yeah, hubby also thinks this isn’t ok. If we followed the thread on that one, it would not look pretty. So you are left with layer after layer of fear that just goes on to fuel more fear.

So now we de-escalate. “A fly doesn’t mean infestation,”  “If my home were infested, we can try green treatments first, or we can move out for triple the usual amount of time,”  “Many people bug out over bugs — it’s ok that I am scared,” and “My husband loves me, even with this issue.”

If all this doesn’t help, it may be time to find a good therapist. And you may be surprised at how many perfectly normal people you see walking out of her office.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.