Conquering Your Fear Of Bedbugs

Reappraise your fears. Watch the Science Friday video.

With daily reports of bedbugs in movie theaters and clothing stores — let alone apartment buildings — bedbug hysteria seems to be reaching new heights. Psychologist Kevin Ochsner studies how people regulate emotion and shares tips for how to get your bedbug fear under control.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Next time it's - next up. Next time is right here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's time for Flora's Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman is here. She's a digital video editor - digital media, everything we've got going. What have you got for us this week?

FLORA LICHTMAN: This week, Ira, we're taking on something that has really become, I think, a national phenomenon in the last couple years, but particularly this summer. So I want to read you some headlines. You'll quickly know what I'm talking about. This is from the last week. And this is not the tabloids. So the NPR headline is: "Bedbugs aren't Just Back, They're Spreading."

FLATOW: Ooh.

LICHTMAN: The Wall Street Journal has: "Bedbugs Movie Theater Invasion: What's Their Next Target?" The New York Times: "What Spreads Faster than Bedbugs? Stigma." And then this is my personal favorite. Associated Content says: "Bedbug Attack: A New Kind of Domestic Terrorism, or Just a Pandemic?"

FLATOW: Wow. We don't need Shark Week anymore. We could have bedbugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: There's something scarier than Shark Week, Bedbug Week on SCIENCE FRIDAY. So it seems like we've sort of hit a fever pitch with our fear of bedbugs. Remember, they don't spread diseases.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So we - we talked to a psychologist who's here with us. Dr. Kevin Ochsner is a professor of psychology at Columbia University, and he studies emotion and how we might regulate our fear of bedbugs. Welcome to the program, Dr. Ochsner.

Dr. KEVIN OCHSNER (Psychology, Columbia University): Thanks very much. It's my pleasure to be here.

LICHTMAN: So Kevin, why is it that this fear of bedbugs seems so contagious? I mean, why has it taken hold the way it has, do you think?

Dr. OCHSNER: Well, there's probably a couple pieces to that answer. The first part has to do with what fear is. It's this evolutionary, old reaction that helps us identify things that are potentially scary and threatening and that could really harm us out there in the world. It helps us mobilize our resources to protect ourselves. And when seen through that lens, you can understand why the media in general tries to package their stories in terms of things that might make us afraid. Fear disrupts anything else that's going on and tries to make us pay attention.

LICHTMAN: It gets our attention.

Dr. OCHSNER: Exactly. So, now that doesn't explain the - why bedbugs in particular make us afraid. That explains why the media wants to make sure we hear about them.

LICHTMAN: Okay. What explains that part - component of it?

Dr. OCHSNER: Well, there seems to be two things. Really, it's two different kinds of things that makes us quite afraid. The first is the term itself. Bedbug pairs together, on the one hand, the word bed - which connotes a place of safety and rest and peaceful sanctuary - with a word that we associate with cockroaches and spiders and all sorts of other little creepy, crawly things that we may be biologically prepared to find disgusting and fear-inducing. Now, the other piece of this is that we don't really, most of us, know much about what bedbugs are, how - even how large they are, what they do, what they want with us.

LICHTMAN: So we don't have to have a direct experience with it, in other words?

Dr. OCHSNER: That's right. We let our imaginations run wild. And because we don't know that much about them, we feel free to insert a lot of ideas about the worst things we can imagine from a cockroach or a spider or what have you. And it turns out that research in my lab and other peoples' labs suggest that when you're imagination runs wild in that way, you end up triggering activity in this old brain structures that are really there to help us keep away from the things that are worthy of making us afraid.

LICHTMAN: Well, just...

Dr. OCHSNER: But because we can turn them on with our imagination, we end up feeling it, anyway.

LICHTMAN: So we can actually imagine ourselves into feeling scared? We can actually change our body into being scared just through our mind?

Dr. OCHSNER: Absolutely. We do this all the time when we read books. My favorite example is, you're sitting home reading a book on a fall evening and the sun goes down, the room gets dark. And you don't realize you haven't turn on the lights. And you hear a creak in the floor, or a shadow crosses your eye from a - cast from a tree outside. And you start imagining the worst. Did you lock the front door? Hmm. Maybe you didn't. Could that be some intruder inside the house? And so on. And you find heart racing, your skin sweating. Your mind runs wild with the worst possibilities. And the bedbug phenomenon seems to have tapped into this capability that we have.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it's interesting. Even just you relaying that story makes me a little creeped out, which seems to suggest that you can - you - clearly, fears are contagious. You don't have to have the firsthand experience yourself.

Dr. OCHSNER: It's true. I mean, that taps - that's sort of related to the social component of this. It's a bit like rumor or gossip, where someone reads a headline of a sort that you read earlier - and some of those are real doozies - and then they let their imagination run wild. And then they tell their friend about the headline without ever really getting the facts about bedbugs. And they distort the story a little bit. They embellish it. They're not really quite sure what bedbugs are all about, but it just sounds rotten and horrible.

And then you end up hearing things, as I've heard during the past week, about you can't get rid of bedbugs once you get them. The welts on your body will last for weeks. It'll be terribly painful. I've even heard that it's as bad as Lyme disease and such things as this, all of which turn out not to be true.

LICHTMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, on NPR.

So Kevin, if you can imagine yourself into feeling afraid, can you imagine yourself out of being afraid? Can we - do have some control over this fear?

Dr. OCHSNER: Yes, absolutely. And the way you just phrased it is right on. So if your beliefs - which happen to not be a representation of reality, but just what you worry it might be - are what got you into this fearful predicament in the first place, then it's reprising(ph) or fixing those beliefs that can get you out of it. So if you get some of the facts on bedbugs, you might find out that they're really a bit more like a land mosquito, not a land piranha. And you can just think of them that way: annoying, but certainly not something worth being really afraid of.

And once you start thinking of them as a manageable pest, not a phobia-inducing boogeyman, you've just done what we call reappraisal, which is using your thinking or your beliefs to control your emotional reactions. It turns out that's one of the most powerful and flexible strategies we can use. In fact, it's so powerful it forms the basis of a lot of the most effective psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

FLATOW: So we have our listeners thinking about this already. We have an email from Anna, who wants to know: Can you ask how big they get? See, they're already thinking about comparative - they're afraid of the size. I mean, you think of a mosquito and you think of a bedbug, are they on the same scale?

Dr. OCHSNER: You know, I'm not a biologist or an entomologist, so - to the best of my knowledge, just from the research that I've done, they aren't terribly large. They're quite small little critters.

LICHTMAN: They're - I think they're five to nine millimeters, is what I just looked up.

Dr. OCHSNER: That's pretty small. They're more on the order of mosquito-size than anything larger.

LICHTMAN: But you're right. I mean, people are thinking, oh, you know, are these going to be gigantic things in my bed? You know, our imagination - they just capture our imagination in this kind of amazing way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. OCHSNER: You know, there's a great video that Isabella Rossellini did that you can see on YouTube. It's part of a whole series of videos that she did, and this one focuses on the bedbug phenomenon. And they have these little, like, cardboard bedbugs come out from underneath the pillow, as if they're going to attack Isabella, and they're quite large, like a foot long. And that's - what we imagine they would be actually be like. And the video itself is highlighting just how crazy our fear of these little parasites has become.

FLATOW: Well, Flora has made her own video. Our Video Pick of the Week this week is Flora's video that puts it in a different perspective. Flora?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I think we had spoken about reappraisal and how you can think about something in a different way, and it becomes less scary. So we said this sort of an experimental, therapeutic technique that we're trying out on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Let us know if this helps you conquer your fear of bedbugs. They are portrayed - the bedbugs in this video are portrayed in a slightly different light.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you may feel a lot different about the bedbugs if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com. You can see Flora sort of chatting with the bedbugs and getting their point of view about what it's like to be persecuted this way, as bedbugs. And it's on our website at sciencefriday.com. It's the Video Pick of the Week up there in the left side of the video.

And you can see a kind of interesting, different perspective. Maybe you won't look or feel about bedbugs the same way after you see this video.

LICHTMAN: That's the hope, I think.

FLATOW: There you go.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Dr. Ochsner.

Dr. OCHSNER: My pleasure.

LICHTMAN: Kevin Ochsner is a professor of psychology at Columbia University.

FLATOW: And thank you, Flora. And this - we shot it in New York. These are New York...

LICHTMAN: New York bedbugs.

FLATOW: New York bedbugs.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Yes. We hit the streets of New York to get a sort of different perspective, and I found some surprising similarities between New Yorkers and bedbugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's Flora's Video Pick of the Week on sciencefriday.com. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Thanks for taking time to be with us today.

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