Why cockroaches scare us more than other insects: is this fear justified, and how to overcome it - ForumDaily
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Why do cockroaches scare us more than other insects: is this fear justified, and how to overcome it?

Why do cockroaches disgust us so much? Why are we afraid of them and is it possible to get rid of this feeling? Correspondent with the BBC Future Rachel Nuwer decided to go through her personal hell of fear of these insects to find out about it - and also to discover the disturbing truth about our future with these creatures.

Photo: IStock

“I'm about four years old and I'm sitting in the green-carpeted hallway of our home in Biloxi, Mississippi. The bathroom door is open in front of me and my mom is getting out of the shower. As she takes the towel, I notice a dark stain on the fluffy pink fabric. This is a cockroach. I see him before she does. When she wraps herself in a towel, the cockroach instantly makes itself known. She screams, naked, vulnerable and scared. I start crying,” Rachel recounts her memory of her first encounter with a cockroach.

Recently she asked her mother about this event, and her mother did not understand what Rachel was talking about.

“Maybe I dreamed it, or maybe my childhood memories let me down. Or perhaps it was a common occurrence in our home in the southern US, where - no matter how much we tried to stop them - cockroaches inevitably found their way inside the house,” she says.

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Whether this incident was real or imaginary, it gave Rachel a strong dislike for cockroaches, which only intensified over the years and with each subsequent meeting with these creatures.

“For me, a cockroach is not just an insect. This is a kind of psychological gateway to a whole series of traumatic experiences: I am rummaging through a box in my toy house and suddenly I feel a cockroach on my leg, its spiny legs digging into my skin; watching my first cat, Salty, catch a cockroach, dismember it, and then eat the leftovers; finding a small dead cockroach tangled in my wet hair after a trip to the beach, and then having recurring nightmares of picking cockroaches out of my hair,” she says.

Cockroaches invade our homes and make them theirs. These embodiments of dirt and germs show us that all our efforts to fight dirt and disease are ultimately futile.

“They've figured out how to take advantage of the opportunities we create and at the same time have developed behaviors that make it difficult for us to control them,” says Jeff Lockwood, a professor of science and humanities at the University of Wyoming. “In a sense, we hate what we cherish.” After all, it is our existence that allows them to succeed.

Rachel decided to find out the true nature of this relationship - and the irrational fear it so often inspires. The mission led her to unearth the cockroach exoskeletons in her closet, research strange new techniques to help overcome her fear of insects, and ultimately face her fear head-on at one of the leading cockroach research labs in the world. At the same time, in the process she discovered a disturbing truth about the future of our relationship with cockroaches, and it changed her attitude towards these enemies.

Common phobia

Delving deeper into history, Rachel quickly realized that our dislike of cockroaches goes back centuries. The ancient Egyptians cast spells and begged the ram-headed god Khnum to banish cockroaches. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote about the disgusting nature of these pests. British explorer John Smith of Jamestown complained about the stench of cockroaches that quickly spread throughout the New World.

By the 19th century, cockroaches already ruled the world.

However, given what we know about cockroaches today, it would be logical not to be afraid of them. Unlike mosquitoes, ticks or fleas, cockroaches do not carry disease and do not feed on our blood. However, for some reason we don't scream when we see mosquitoes - even though they are the deadliest animal in the world. Yes, cockroaches live in dirt, but the worst thing that can happen to you is food poisoning if one of these pests runs straight across your slice of pizza. But this is nothing compared to malaria, yellow fever or dengue, which are spread by mosquitoes.

However, oddly enough, many people suffer from cataridaphobia, or the fear of cockroaches. Lockwood suggests they number in the tens of millions, and Richard Kaae, an entomologist at California State University, says cockroaches are the world's most feared insect.

However, measuring the prevalence of Katsaridaphobia is difficult. The vast majority of people who are afraid of cockroaches never seek help - primarily because they want to do everything possible to never even mention these creatures. Rachel was one of them—until she decided to change that.

They're sneaking up on you

Photo: IStock

“I spent the entire day in the kitchen of my home in New Orleans, preparing dinner for the guy I liked. After lunch we went outside to enjoy the scent of magnolia trees. Suddenly, while I was drinking wine, a flying cockroach landed right on my cheek. I screamed, spasmodically raised my hands up and splashed a waterfall of red wine onto the face and white shirt of my companion. He stood stunned. A cockroach ruined my date,” says Rachel.

In the worst cases, cockroach phobias have a significant impact on the victim's life. Psychologists talk about patients who cannot get out of bed at night or go to the kitchen for fear of encountering a cockroach. Emily Driscoll, a New York-based documentary producer, once found herself trapped in a hotel room in India because there was a cockroach on the doorknob.

“I couldn’t move, I was paralyzed,” she says. “I didn’t take my eyes off him.”

Andrew Stein, a programmer who grew up in New Orleans and now lives in New York City, also remembers being caught in a trap. That evening, in his newly renovated apartment in Brooklyn, he heard a familiar squealing squeak coming from the bathroom.

“I didn’t expect to see a bunch of insects there,” he says. “But I thought: this sound sounds like a cockroach.”

He went to the bathroom and found a large American cockroach clinging to his towel. He spent the next two hours in the hallway, trying to work up the courage to go back and kill the cockroach. However, he found another solution: when his roommate returned around 10 a.m., Andrew paid him $XNUMX to get rid of the cockroach.

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about cockroaches that bothers people so much, simply because there are so many answers to this question.

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“They're unpredictable, like they're doing eight things at once. They look dirty. They move very quickly. And they don’t seem to be afraid of people at all,” says Andrew. “The first thing I think about when I see a cockroach is that this creature can jump across the room and touch me if it wants to - and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

As Lockwood explains, the reason cockroaches seem so disgusting to us lies in their biology.

“Cockroaches fit into the evolutionary aversion we have to greasy, smelly, slimy things,” he says.

Their unpredictable movements and phenomenal speed—relative to their size, they are among the fastest land animals—evolved as mechanisms for escaping predators. Just like their stench is due to the fact that they store nitrogenous waste products, particularly uric acid, in their fatty tissue. Finally, their slippery surface is the result of a lipid-based wax that is supposed to prevent water loss. None of these characteristics attracts a person at all.

“Besides,” Lockwood adds, “they’re cheeky little bastards.”

Cockroaches are incredibly prolific and difficult to get rid of. If one pair of German cockroaches is given the opportunity to reproduce in the presence of sufficient food, then within a few years there may already be two or three million of them.

In addition, they eat almost everything - from paper and grass. In the most extreme cases - both on Navy submarines and in children's bedrooms - they chewed off the eyelashes of their sleeping victims.

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But these physical and behavioral characteristics do not explain why cockroaches are so often the target of phobias. As it turns out, the roots of this fear often lie in a specific traumatic experience - for example, watching your mother scream after seeing a cockroach. This fear often develops early, around the age of four or five years.

“Evolutionarily, we are very inclined to take cultural cues from our parents and society about how we should respond to insects,” Lockwood says. “Today this reaction is predominantly negative, which is why we raise anxious children.”

However, some manage to avoid this fear. Philipp Köhler, an experienced entomologist with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, probably spends more time—voluntarily—with cockroaches than anyone else in the world. He houses about a million of these insects in his laboratory at the University of Florida.

“I didn’t overcome any fear because I never had any fear,” he says, smiling. “Perhaps I was a strange person from the very beginning.”

However, his fascination with these creatures still has limits.

“Personally, I don’t find them attractive,” he admits.

On a warm spring morning, Rachel walked into Koehler's office with a dual mission: to learn everything she could about the disgusting subjects of his research, and, more importantly, to confront them head-on.

Koehler is not a psychologist, but he is familiar with treatments for cockroach phobias. A few years ago, a woman in her 50s approached him. She said her life was ruined by cockroaches; no matter where she went, she couldn't function because she was always looking for a cockroach. Could he help her with something?

He invited her to the laboratory for an informal session of so-called exposure therapy. At first they just talked about cockroaches, then they moved on to photographs and finally to real insects. After several visits, she was even able to hold a cockroach.
Rachel went to Gainesville to see if this treatment would work for her.

Koehler starts by trying to figure out her beef with cockroaches.

“What don’t you like about them? he asks. “Color, movement, perhaps the feeling of their paws?”

Rachel recounts a few of her stories to make him understand, and he listens patiently.

“So cockroaches have never harmed you?” - he asks, leaning over the table. It challenges Rachel's fear logic - a proven and working tactic when it comes to treating irrational phobias.

“Well, probably not,” she admits. “But they were there... They were in my space...”

“They just scared you,” he suggests.

“Yes, I think surprise played a role,” says Rachel.

In theory he's right, but Rachel isn't entirely happy with the conclusion they've reached. “Scared” doesn’t even come close to reflecting what the cockroaches managed to do to her.

Rachel later realized how she should have described her problem. When a cockroach sneaks into her bedroom at night or flies into her face, it forces her to admit that she has no control. Just as men groping women on the subway or shouting nasty things at them may not cause physical harm to their victims, but such unwanted interactions can still cause significant stress.

Unprovoked danger - actual or perceived - can occur without warning. She could slip out of a dark alley or from under a closet door at any moment. Cockroaches violate the personal space of their victims. In the words of George A. Romero, they sneak up on you. And there's nothing you can do to stop them.

But is there a way to overcome this disgust?

Exposure Therapy

"Hey, cockroach!" – a classmate once laughed at me. But instead of being offended, I embraced the new nickname, even drawing cockroaches on notes I passed under desks to friends to encourage them to use it, Rachel says. “Cockroaches are cute,” I told myself. There's nothing to be afraid of. But when a live cockroach appeared in the school bathroom or gym, these calming thoughts immediately turned into what they were originally: a lie that was supposed to calm the frightened girl.”

Over the years, Rachel noticed that her phobia was getting worse. She considered this a weakness and tried to self-medicate in her own way. In high school, she stayed up late playing Bad Mojo, a computer game about a criminal entomologist who turns into a cockroach, and went to karaoke at the Joe's Apartment party with songs about cockroaches. But digitized, anthropomorphized cockroaches on screen and live cockroaches are completely different, she says.

When Rachel got older and moved to New Orleans, she went to work on the Discovery Walk project at the Audubon Zoo and was asked to work with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and giant Brazilian cockroaches.

“Perhaps if I showed the kids how harmless cockroaches are, I thought, I could somehow overcome my own dislike of them,” says Rachel.

But despite dealing with these exotic species regularly, Rachel still flinched and screamed whenever she encountered their brothers in real life outside the zoo.

She found it hard to believe that anything could change how she felt and reacted to cockroaches. But not everyone agreed with her pessimistic forecast.

To overcome phobias, therapists insist, you need to get used to the cause of your fear - cockroaches, heights or being in a crowd. If you encounter it over and over again, over time it will become boring and ordinary. However, countless phobic disorders remain untreatable simply because few people have the unique combination of desperation and courage required to voluntarily come into contact with cockroaches.

“Touching a cockroach is the worst thing I can imagine,” Stein says.

Some therapists develop workarounds for patients. A team of researchers from the James I University in Spain believes that augmented reality, that is, projecting computerized images into the real world, can help treat cockroach phobia. In this way, you can create the impression that imaginary cockroaches are running along a real person’s hand.

To test this system, Spanish researchers recruited six participants, all of whom suffered from a debilitating, clinically proven phobia of cockroaches. One participant wanted to sell her apartment after noticing a cockroach there, and another refused to visit her grandmother because she was afraid of seeing a cockroach. Others spoke of a "total loss of control" when they saw a cockroach.

Before undergoing augmented reality therapy, none of the women agreed to enter a room where there was a live cockroach in a plastic container.

However, after wearing an augmented reality headset and watching imaginary cockroaches crawl on their arms for one to three hours, the women's anxiety levels slowly began to decrease.

When the session was over, they were able to walk up to a live cockroach and even slide their finger into its container for a few seconds. Twelve months after the initial treatment, participants maintained their results.

“The phobic brain stores bad information about cockroaches: it thinks cockroaches are very, very dangerous,” says Cristina Botella, professor of clinical psychology and leader of the study.

However, the augmented reality system changes the structure of fear, demonstrating the harmlessness of cockroaches.

“The brain is capable of storing new information that is incompatible with old information,” she says.

Unfortunately, augmented reality is not yet available in clinics. Until further research is completed and this treatment is approved for use during therapy, people with phobias who want to overcome their fear must do it the old fashioned way: through cognitive behavioral therapy combined with exposure therapy.

The efforts of those who have the courage to try it are often rewarded in only one to three sessions.

“These treatments allow you to live with these creatures, instead of spending your whole life trying to avoid them,” Lockwood says.
Meanwhile, in Gainesville, Rachel is hopeful that this kind of therapy might be right for her.

They leave Koehler's office and head towards the closed door in the hallway.

“Here comes our room of cockroaches!” he proclaims, opening a portal to Rachel's personal hell.

She wanted to wait a moment to get ready, but he pushes her inside.

“Suddenly I find myself surrounded by at least a million cockroaches of 14 different species. They're housed in dozens of glass jars, each containing a bunch of insects - from little ones smaller than my pinky fingernail to giant Brazilian cockroaches larger than a mouse. However, my eyes immediately search and stop at the most hated of all species - the American cockroaches,” she says.

And while Koehler and his colleague Liz Pereira show her various other specimens, her peripheral vision remains focused on the American ones. “I feel goosebumps on my skin, my heart rate increases, and I feel a little short of breath,” Rachel says.

The moment has finally come to face these monsters. Pereira removes a jar of American cockroaches from the shelf and carefully places it on the table in front of the girl.

Rachel instinctively steps back, experiencing her childhood fear. Pereira, meanwhile, smiles.

“My first day here, I had the same reaction,” she says, and reaches out to remove the lid.

"Wait! Won’t they fly out?” – Rachel protests – but it’s done.

The small room is filled with their scent, and she wrinkles her nose, leaning towards the jar.

“Can I touch them?” - Rachel asks.

"Certainly!" – Koehler answers with a laugh.

Pereira tranquilizes the cockroaches with carbon dioxide, and within seconds they are immobilized.

“Would you like to hold it?” - She hands Rachel one of them.

Rachel reaches out a shaking hand and she drops the cockroach into her open palm.

“My brain has a hard time processing this conflicting information - I'm holding a cockroach and everything is fine - and at the same time I laugh nervously, hysterically, as Koehler takes a few photos. And then it all ends. Pereira carefully picks up the cockroach and returns it to his sleeping friends, Rachel says. “Later I send a photo of myself holding a cockroach to my boyfriend.”

“It doesn’t count if you’re wearing gloves!” – he writes in response.

“He clearly doesn’t understand,” I think, shaking my head. Only another person with a phobia will understand this. With or without gloves, I held a cockroach, and I survived,” says the girl.

Cause for concern

One morning as a teenager, Rachel got out of bed and reached for the box of leftover cookies on the floor. She took a bite and, while chewing, accidentally noticed that there was a large piece of chocolate icing in the box. However, it was not icing. It was a huge American cockroach. Which before that could dig through sewage and rotten meat. Rachel spat out the half-baked cookie, splattering the pink and white floral wallpaper. These stains were never removed.

It was no coincidence that Rachel wore a glove in Koehler's cockroach room. People have long suspected that cockroaches are mechanical carriers of disease - they come into contact with rot, feces and dirt, and then transfer these germs to other surfaces.

At the same time, it is difficult to prove that in a particular case of food poisoning it was the cockroach that was to blame - when it could have been the dirty hands of the chef or many other factors.

However, several years ago, Koehler and one of his students helped prove that cockroaches can carry harmful bacteria. Bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 - a deadly species - can survive on the surface of cockroaches for at least two months, creating a risk of contamination in food. Bacteria can also survive the journey through a cockroach's gut, so their feces scattered around the house can also be a potential source of illness.

However, most likely, the spread of disease is not the biggest harm cockroaches have for our health. Proteins found in cockroach feces and on their bodies. This confirms, in particular, that entomologists often have an allergic reaction to the subject of their research.
Renowned cockroach expert William Bell developed such an allergy to arthropods that by the end of his career he could no longer eat lobster.

But the most serious problems with cockroach allergies occur in cities, where they are often impossible to escape. People breathe the smell of cockroaches in the subway and in restaurants, on the bus and on the street. And those who live in large apartment buildings where there is insufficient pest control are faced with these invisible allergens directly in their homes.

Children suffer the most from cockroach allergies, which are also associated with asthma attacks.

Matt Perzanowski studies these allergens in his laboratory at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. He and his colleagues travel to homes around the city and collect dust samples from kitchens and beds.

In his sterile laboratory, he analyzes their contents for the presence of cockroach parts. If you were to look at these harmless-looking pieces of fluff and dust, you would never guess that they might contain body particles and waste from six-legged invaders.

“The cockroaches haven’t changed,” he says. “The biggest thing that has changed in terms of impact is that now children are simply spending a lot more time inside, which means they are surrounded by cockroaches more.”

Perzanowski found that children living in areas with higher rates of asthma were about twice as likely to be allergic to cockroaches. In other words, cockroaches are not just a source of irrational fear. They can have an impact on our health. The question is, what can we do about it?

Future War

Photo: IStock

Rachel sprays the cockroach with Raid and takes perverse pleasure from his dance of death. No matter how hard he tries, he can no longer hold onto the plaster wall. He falls, and after a few minutes he lies on his back, and his legs periodically tremble. But she knows that this cockroach is dead.

We naively believed that we could stop them. In the 1990s, when bait traps hit the market, we thought we had won the war. After decades of ineffective home warfare, we had finally developed a method that seemed to completely destroy the enemy.

For cockroaches, the baits were "like cocaine," says Jack Brans, owner of Brans Pest Control in Harahan, Louisiana. We smugly thought we had solved the problem. As a result, fewer entomologists devoted their research to cockroaches, and research funding also shifted to other pests, such as bedbugs.

But this success was short-lived. In the early 2000s, cockroaches began appearing again in kitchens and bathrooms. At entomological conferences they started talking about strengthening the enemy. Experts realized that the cockroaches began to fight back. Lures were no longer as effective as before.

In the early 2010s, researchers discovered at least one problem: cockroaches had developed an aversion to glucose. These sweets, which were originally bait for cockroaches, became disgusting to them.

Koehler believes we will never defeat cockroaches. As he notes, these insects were thriving hundreds of millions of years before we appeared. We simply gave them the extra push they needed for global dominion.

“They were able to find a solution to almost everything that life threw at them for over 300 million years,” he says with a hint of piety in his voice. “Humans would not be able to survive the changes that cockroaches successfully went through.”

Most likely they will outlive us. And when our species finally disappears, cockroaches will happily feast on our remains.

“For me, I don’t plan on raising colonies of cockroaches in my apartment anytime soon, and I make sure to keep a bottle of Raid under the sink. But when summer comes and the cockroaches come out of their hiding places, I'll try to do what most New Yorkers do: just ignore them. Otherwise, a very sad future awaits me. It's time to overcome fear and learn to live with these conquerors,” says Rachel.

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