How To Squash Your Fear of Bugs (and Other Phobias)

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S1: Hey, listeners, you may have noticed something a little different in your podcast player in the spirit of New Year, New You. We decided to give ourselves a 2022 makeover instead of the old yellow legal pad. Look for our new sky blue cover art with the paper airplane. Hopefully, it’ll lift your spirits while we keep solving your problems.

S2: You know, I do have some memories of maybe one calling on my leg for a second and then jumping off.

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S3: Was it when you were little?

S2: Yeah, I think it was in the shower, which was worse because I think it came out of the drain, called over my leg and went back to the drain.

S1: I’m Amanda Ripley. Welcome to Fear Factor. Just joking. This is still how to. There will be no jumping off of buildings or live burials or creepy crawly monsters, at least not until later. But we are going to help you face some of your more irrational fears today. For our listener, Peter, the monster in his closet, so to speak, is a small but wily little demon that dates all the way back to the Jurassic period about 200 million years ago. Yes, we’re talking about the cockroach.

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S2: I know they can’t really hurt me, but ever since I was a child, I was pretty scared of them sort of paralyzed.

S1: Peter is a chemist who lives in Israel, and every year, starting in April, cockroaches are suddenly everywhere, including occasionally in his apartment,

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S2: in your house when they run away. It’s it’s not good because you don’t know when

S1: they’re still there,

S2: and then you open some sort of kitchen cabinet and he jumps out at you.

S3: So I yeah, yeah. No, I hear you. If I see a rat when I’m walking through the streets of D.C., that’s one thing. But in my house, that’s a that’s my castle. You know, like I need, I need to know that’s safe.

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S2: Oh, yeah, definitely. So I just moved in here. It was June of July, and one of my cats was staying at the window and I had the window open with like a net mosquito net. And I saw that there was a cockroach basically sitting on the net. By the time I reached the window, the cockroach was gone. And one minute later, I see the cat chasing something and I immediately knew that it was inside the house.

S3: So how were you feeling during this chase?

S2: Pretty anxious, I guess, I felt, you know, how you you feel your pulse. I felt my boss and my girlfriend was in the apartment at the time. You know, I I can’t really hide my my fear or distrust of them, but I had to be like extra brave.

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S3: So you felt like you had to be the man and kill us? Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And then once you managed to capture the cockroach and dispose of it? Were you nervous that there were more cockroaches in its wake?

S2: Oh yeah. Yeah, like like shadows, like flickering lights in the in the corner of my eye. Mm hmm. Yeah, definitely.

S1: Peter is not alone. Humans have been disgusted by cockroaches since basically forever. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, written 3000 years ago, includes a spell for banishing cockroaches. And it is no wonder, right? I mean, they’re slimy, unpredictable and relative to their size. One of the fastest land animals on Earth. But looking at it logically, it doesn’t quite make sense to loathe cockroaches as much as we do. I mean, they aren’t disease vectors like ticks or fleas, and they don’t feed directly off of our blood. In fact, if we should be repulsed by any insect, it should definitely be the mosquito. And yet roaches are way, way more disgusting.

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S3: I get the sense because you are a scientist that you like to, you know, think rationally through things you think of yourself as a rational person. Is that part of why this kind of Bugs you no pun intended?

S2: Yeah, it it is part of it. It’s also the helplessness like, I know I shouldn’t be scared, but I can’t help but being scared.

S3: So so the fear of the actual threat, the cockroach. And then there’s also the sense of powerlessness over your reaction.

S2: I mean, I’m always asking myself, what’s the problem like? And I reach my hand and have it, but I can’t.

S1: On today’s show, we’re confronting the fears that we know are silly on some level, but we just can’t seem to get past. Peter is suffering from cancer phobia, the fear of cockroaches. But there are a lot of other irrational fears out there. And so to help Peter and really all of us deal with our fear of Bugs or needles or heights, we brought in somebody who’s been treating phobias like this for the last 30 years. It’s a surprisingly fun conversation.

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S4: Stay with us.

S1: Our expert today is Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, a veteran clinical psychologist based in San Francisco. Elizabeth Do you have any irrational fears?

S5: Oh goodness. I do a lot of public speaking and webinars and workshops, and I get scared before everyone. I mean, I get scared before this podcast today.

S3: Oh, that’s a.

S5: And I’ve come to say to myself, Well, it’s because I’m doing something that I care about passionately that I think is important and I call it vibrating mode. I just got into vibrating mode. If I said, Oh my gosh, I’ve got to not be scared. I’ve got Abby scared. Oh, you just lost the war right there. Hmm. Because if we controlled our I think de la, the treatment for any kind of fear, panic or anxiety would be Belson. Don’t be scared and you’d be like, Oh my gosh, you’re right.

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S3: Right? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?

S2: It’s like the perfect. The perfect images. Calm down.

S1: Right, right. That’s the last thing you ever want to say

S3: to someone who’s said, Yeah,

S5: exactly.

S1: I love Elizabeth idea about reframing anxiety as excitement, which seems totally doable for public speaking, but it’s a little harder to imagine getting excited about confronting a cockroach.

S5: You know what Peter’s describing is so common, and phobias often start in childhood, like Peter’s described. You know, when Peter talks about this conflict between his rational side and yet, on the other hand, feeling like he can’t help being scared, he gets scared and he feels helpless over. Why can’t I not be scared if I know rationally that they’re not dangerous? And that’s sort of the classic conflict, the classic dilemma with any kind of irrational fear. Hmm. And I’ve come to describe what goes on in the brain as kind of like a a fight between the lower level of our brain, primarily the amygdala. I tend to call it the reacting brain, which is primitive and has an automatic response to what it thinks might be dangerous. It’s your protector, it’s your bodyguard. It’s devoted, but it’s dumb

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S3: like a not so smart guard

S5: dog. Yes, yes. So you get this immediate, visceral, physical, emotional response from the reacting brain and then kind of you got that. You got the rational thinking brain coming afterwards sort of saying, Well, now wait, hold on a minute. Let, let’s just. But by that time, the adrenaline pumping through your body, your heart’s going. You’re flooded with disgust or fear. And the thing is, it’s so automatic it can misfire. And once it’s accidentally learned or incorrectly learned that something’s dangerous or more dangerous than it is, it doesn’t forget because you remember it’s your bodyguard.

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S1: So here’s our first take. Don’t be ashamed of your guard dog. It’s trying to protect you even when it’s wrong. Almost half of Americans have some fear of flying. One in four are afraid of public speaking. But as involuntary as these fears are, the evidence shows that people can actually get much better at responding to them.

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S5: Absolutely, absolutely. And you’re right, the instinctive response is to act as if you’re being threatened as if you’re in danger. Like Peter’s talking about hyper alert, hyper vigilant, looking for the cockroach jumping at shadows.

S2: Yeah, that sounds familiar.

S5: But what you want to do with any kind of fear is you want to have like a dialogue between these two parts of the brain. You want to basically say to the fearful part of your brain, What is scary about the cockroaches?

S1: Let’s ask us, Peter, what is scary about the cockroach? I like

S3: that question.

S2: The first thing that kind of scares me or disgust me is when I see the the antenna so shady. Yeah, especially if I if I’m in the position where I see it before I see the cockroach. So that that happened a few times. It’s like the color, the dark brown color, the size, and especially the speeds which they move because they move quite fast. I don’t know how it’s like in the in the states, but over here, when they open up the wings and fly inside the apartments,

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S3: we have those in the south, in the U.S. and they call them Palmetto Bugs, as if that makes it any better. They are flying cockroaches is what they are. Yeah. So there are lots of reasons to be freaked out by them. But to Elizabeth point, we also know they’re not actually a threat to us, especially compared to, say, a mosquito.

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S5: Exactly, precisely. My clients find it really, really helpful to ask very specific questions like, what am I really afraid of? Well, for example, if it reached me, what does my reacting brain say is going to happen? What is my reacting? Been predicting, assuming? What are the facts say?

S3: So you’re trying to have your higher level functioning part of your brain? Talk to the lower level and hold up its assumptions to the light. Is that right?

S5: Exactly. To articulate the theory as to to really say, and if that happened, then what? It’s having a great deal of curiosity, open, respectful curiosity about why the reacting brain is responding so intensely. So listening with curiosity, but not with credulity.

S3: Oh, interesting distinction. I like that.

S1: So that’s our next takeaway. We can start to disarm our fears by ironically leaning into them, assigning words and details to the feelings, which means inviting in curiosity without credulity. So ask yourself, what do I think might happen here? And then what? And then what? But let’s be real. Right? It’s pretty hard to investigate your fears this way when you’re convinced that a cockroach is about to jump on your face.

S5: You want to have a tool to tolerate the nasty, miserable misfiring of the fear and panic response. And that could be low, slow breathing. It could be muscle relaxation. It could be mindful attention to the realities of the present, understanding that fears and feelings and thoughts come. But they also go, you don’t necessarily have to believe them. Some technique where you can say, Look, I may never like those cockroaches. I mean, I always dislike them and be pretty disgusted. And I’m not going to change from being a chemist to an entomologist, you know? And my reaction doesn’t necessarily have to determine what I do.

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S1: This reminds me of one of the most valuable mindfulness techniques I’ve learned besides, you know, basic rhythmic breathing. It’s called Liebling. You just say to yourself, OK, that’s a thought or that’s a feeling. It’s funny because it sounds so ridiculous. But when I do it, I find that the thought does kind of fade into the background. It essentially puts a little space between you and the emotional reaction.

S2: That’s actually helpful because I would say that that’s a second stage of the fear would be, Oh, this is going to be just another reminder that I’m afraid of them and I don’t want to be. And what Amanda just said about labeling that and you said about saying, that’s OK, I will be scared. Probably it will make me misfire.

S5: Have the courage to think about what scares you more and more specifically in more and more detail, because only then can you then compare to. Is that really true? It’s certainly terrifying. Yeah, but what scares us may or may not be true.

S1: So to recap, in order to overcome a fear, we first need to tolerate the discomfort using those coping tools like breathing or labeling. Then we can try to interrogate the fear and get specific. Ask if the fear is as true as it feels, then you can move on to step three,

S5: which is the facts give you a thinking brain, the courage to go against your reacting brain. And I think of it as like overriding you’ve got the fear pathway and you’re trying to create an alternate neural pathway of OK, I don’t like it, but it’s not dangerous. Here’s what I’m going to do. Here’s why it’s safe to do this. I think of taking an attitude of what I describe as compassionate firmness. The compassionate is. I know you’re scared, I know this is hard, you’ve been scared for years. Of course it scares you. I understand, and you’re trying to protect me. Hmm. And look, you’re sending a false alarm. This is causing way more problems than we need. Hear what the facts say. So we’re going to act on the facts. I know you’re scared. What we’re going to do with the facts say, and that changes the narrative about everything and it turns it. Potentially what it does is it turns every now, every episode of anxiety or experience with the cockroach into what I call an a fog another. We’ll just translate that if his fabulous opportunity for growth.

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S2: Yeah, actually, I love the fact that you’re talking about a a conversation between the two parts of the brain, like you said, because I was under the impression that I should silence one part and now and now I’m hearing that that, first of all, is pretty much impossible and secondly isn’t worth doing. Hmm.

S5: Peter, you’re absolutely right. That’s absolutely a brilliant summary.

S3: So you’re feeling the fear, acknowledging it right, tolerating it and then going on stage anyway? Yes.

S5: And meanwhile, also before, during and afterwards reminding yourself about why you’re doing it, why you’re acting this way and praising yourself. Because, you know, it takes courage to deal with fear, and you’re doing this and remembering why you’re doing this, you’re making this change to action because you want your life to be better.

S1: Coming up, we’re going to actually create another fabulous opportunity for growth, will stare directly into a cockroaches, beady little eyes and put all of these techniques to the test. Well, actually, Peter is going to do all that, but we are going to watch. Don’t chicken out now. We’ll be right back. If you rely on how to the best way to support this show is by joining Slate Plus Slate’s membership program, signing up for Slate Plus helps us help all the people you hear on our podcast every week. It’s only one dollar for the first month, and members will never hear another ad on our podcast or any other Slate podcast. You’ll also get free and total access to Slate’s website. Plus, you’ll be supporting our important work, so I hope you’ll join if you can. Again, it’s just one dollar for your first month. To sign up now, go to Slate.com Slash how to plus again, that Slate.com slash. How plus thanks. We’re back with Dr. Elizabeth McMahon and our listener, Peter, who’s working through his fear of cockroaches. Elizabeth often uses virtual reality techniques to help her patients confront their fears in a safe environment. We don’t have a VR headset for Peter right now, but we’re going to ask him to look at a gruesome picture of a cockroach that our producer Derek found online and Elizabeth is going to walk us through in real time what he should do.

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S3: So there is a link in the Zoom chat. Yeah, I’m going to click on it as well. So you’re not alone. I hate these things. Oh oh my god, look at that creepy little bastard. Yeah. Oh, he’s got like one of those like little spikes. I don’t know what the technical term is on his legs.

S2: Yeah, that’s that’s the first thing. I Sato and also the little things at the end of the stick in the puzzle that are sticking out. I don’t know why that is right.

S3: Looks menacing. Looks like the antenna. Don’t. Let’s not get started.

S5: Yeah. OK, so do you do you hear? Do you hear the narrative that you guys are putting on this? Yeah. Words like most menacing, creepy, horrible, right? Rewards program our brain. So really listening to the words you’re using whenever you’re dealing with any kind of fear and then thinking, are there other words that there’s another way I could think about it? How would somebody who’s not afraid of this? How would they describe it? What would they be thinking about it? Hmm.

S2: Yeah.

S3: Peter, what would somebody who’s not afraid of this be thinking right now, do you think?

S2: I don’t know. I guess something like, Oh, I know that one, right? As such and such species?

S3: Right. That’s the American cockroach. The standard.

S2: It’s probably a female. I don’t know. Uh, Uh-Huh. I actually like now. My cat moved behind me and I saw its shadow and I was looking at them in some identity. So it’s like, Oh, no.

S3: And then you jumped. Yeah, yeah.

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S5: You know, when you face a fear, there’s some research that indicates that if you spend between one, two, three hours facing what you are afraid of, it has a big impact because in a sense, the adrenaline surge happens quickly, you know the immediate emotional response. But if you stay there, particularly if you go over the facts and you think, well, an entomologist would say this was wonderful, you know, over time, after 60 minutes an hour and a half two hours, you know, you almost get to the point where, like, bored. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, Cockroach, cockroach.

S2: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right? Yeah. So you will, as you were asking me this question to start me in front of the picture,

S1: yeah, what are you? Are you busy for the next three hours?

S3: Now Derek is sending more images. You don’t have to don’t feel like you have to click on that. OK? This is the last one, Peter, I promise you.

S1: Yeah. Tell us, what do you see for the listeners?

S2: Yeah. So there’s clearly a cockroach standing in a kitchen sink near the drain, and it’s immediately reminded me of the time I saw a small antenna sticking out of the of the drain, and I thought it was some hand and didn’t wash away. And I almost grabbed it and I saw that it like had that weird, slow move. And immediately it clicked that it wasn’t a hit. So did you touch it? And by that, no, and by that time, it quickly jumped out of the hole and into the sink. Luckily for me, it’s couldn’t get out, so down the drain, it went again.

S3: Oh wow, OK, I can feel myself being unhelpful. Elizabeth What would be a better response?

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S5: OK. So again, right? Remember? Fear can make you scared, but that doesn’t mean it’s justified. There’s a there’s a great phrase and cognitive behavioural therapy. You know, don’t believe everything you think.

S3: Oh, that’s nice. I have this on my wall. True story.

S5: Yeah. Yeah.

S2: I should get it tattooed. Maybe.

S1: So remember, don’t believe everything you think. And if you’re not ready for exposure therapy or virtual reality, you can always just revisit an old memory in a new way.

S5: This is something that many of my clients find very, very helpful is going back over some scary memories and writing down first. What happened, what they saw, what they felt, what they thought, the emotions, those the senses and then going back and saying, now if I could go back with what I know now. With with what I understand about getting over fear, with what I’ve learned about cockroaches actually being safe, what would I tell my younger self I’d like relive that memory? But now, with a wiser self guiding you through,

S3: hmm, what would you tell the the younger Peter, who had a cockroach crawling up his leg in the shower?

S2: I would say carefully, but firmly shake it off and exit the shower until it goes back into the drain. Mm-Hmm.

S5: And maybe as you were saying earlier, Peter, you know, realizing all it did was it was a few seconds of like tickling on the foot. And then it went back onto the drain.

S3: Yeah, it reminds me of I grew up in a home with a lot of anxiety about germs. For whatever reason, my mom was very anxious about germs, especially in the bathroom

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S1: or the kitchen. And whenever we go to a hotel, it was like a big ordeal.

S3: A room had to be extra clean.

S1: We had to wash all the

S3: dishes again and that kind of thing. And then I had my son and I remember vividly. This time we went to the zoo in D.C. where we live. And he had to go to the bathroom and he was really little, you know, he was like two. And so of course, he’s touching everything and it’s a public bathroom and it’s packed with kids. And so it’s triggering all my worst

S1: fears, right? And we’re in the bathroom stall standing next to the toilets, touching everything, touching the toilet,

S3: and I’m freaking out. I’m like, Look, don’t touch your hands to your face until we can wash them. And he looked right in my eyes, and he licked one hand and then the other. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, Oh my God.

S1: Because it was like a dare almost, you know?

S3: And then, you know what? He was fine.

S5: And you know, that’s the benefit of doing what you’re afraid of.

S1: Thank you to Peter for courageously talking about his fear with us and for putting up with Derek messaging your pictures of cockroaches. Don’t worry if we ever figure out his worst fear, we’ll let you know. So you can get revenge and a big thank you to Dr. Elizabeth McMahon. The work she is doing with VR is fascinating and extremely timely. She’s actually been using VR to help people get over their needle phobias in order to get their COVID vaccines. We’ll link to her advice on managing a fear of needles in the show notes. Is there something bugging you? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. We’d love to have you on the show. And if you like what you heard today, please give us five stars in Apple or Spotify. That really does help us reach more people. How TOS Executive Producer Is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Mary Jacob, our technical director. Special thanks to Amber Smith and to Derek Johnson, who designed our new How to Artwork. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.