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Cockroach phobia: Why do some people have it and others don't?

The good news: Overcoming it can be a DIY process if your fear isn't severe.

I still remember the time a cockroach flew into the hair of a colleague. This was a full-sized specimen and it had tangled itself in her shoulder-length tresses.

As the creature twitched furiously to free all of its six, spindly legs and oily wings (oh, I will never forget that flapping sound in her hair), we all recoiled from her screaming, including the guys. All except for the victim (or were we the victims?), who finally fished it out of her hair with her bare hands and flung it into a nearby drain.

What is it about cockroaches that turn perfectly rational and functioning individuals into embarrassing caricatures of themselves in public, while others are completely nonchalant about them?

(Photo: Unsplash/Nowshad Arefin)


It depends on your childhood, say experts. “Children come into the world largely fearless and curious about their environment. It is through learning - either from negative, traumatic experiences, or mimicking their parents' own fears - that phobias develop,” said Jolene Hwee, psychologist, psychotherapist and founder of Woman Care.

“Growing up, the fear reactions that we experience of others around us can contribute to the development of childhood fears,” said Associate Professor Lim Tit Meng, Chief Executive of Science Centre Singapore, which has an exhibition called Phobia: The Science of Fear. “A child who sees people scream at the sight of a cockroach or swat it may develop an equalised reaction towards cockroaches.”


Negative press about cockroaches crawling into human orifices doesn't help either - along with the bug’s appearance, behaviour and smell. “Visually, cockroaches are thick, slick and greasy, which is an immediate trigger for us to feel disgusted,” said Assoc Prof Lim. “Some individuals are afraid of them because they can hide in dark places and crawl out unexpectedly. Others imagine cockroaches invading their homes, nibbling on their leftovers, or possibly spreading diseases. To some people, the smell of cockroaches alone can be nauseating.”

Interestingly, you may also inherit the gene responsible for katsaridaphobia or the fear of cockroaches, said Assoc Prof Lim. “Scientists have found that mice can pass on learned information about a traumatic experience to subsequent generations. The reason why people suffer from irrational phobias could also have been inherited from the experiences of their ancestors.”

Of the three common cockroaches found in Singapore, the American cockroach (left) is the largest. The brown banded and German cockroaches (right) are about a third of the American specimen's body length.

As for those who don’t see what the fuss over cockroaches is about, you may develop the fear at any point in your life, said Ms Hwee. “New fears may develop because of unexpected situations and the person's inability to cope with that specific situation. For example, being trapped in a malfunctioning train or elevator may cause an adult to develop a fear of confined spaces or claustrophobia.”


The best way to kill a cockroach without getting too close to it? It’s no surprise: Spray it with an insecticide first. “An insecticide is frequently used to slow down the cockroach's movements before hitting it with a slipper or newspaper,” said Dr Chan Hiang Hao, Rentokil Initial Singapore’s in-house medical entomologist.

But if that distance between the insecticide’s spray and the cockroach is still too close for comfort for you, or your fear is affecting your daily activities (such as avoiding walking next to drains or even leaving your apartment), you may need help, said Ms Hwee. “The standard treatment process for any phobia is exposure therapy,” she said.

“You start small by simply talking about cockroaches. Then, you progress to looking at photos, then to seeing dead cockroaches in containers, maybe seeing pinned cockroaches in a museum, and eventually, looking at the real thing.”


Augmented reality may also play a role in exposure therapy, such as the one that was developed and tested by Universitat Jaume in Spain. It used a VR Google headset to project virtual cockroaches onto the real-life scene in front of the user. The “cockroaches” were able to skitter, wave their antennae and even change their size. And the results were encouraging. In their tests on six women, their phobia went from wanting to sell their apartment because they’d seen a cockroach in it, to being able to hold a live cockroach in their hands for a few seconds.

(Photo: Universitat Jaume)

“Augmented reality can be very effective,” said Ms Hwee. “The more realistic the scenarios and images, the more likely the treatment will address the fear. In therapy, we often use visualisation to help clients overcome specific fears in specific scenarios, so augmented reality is the high-tech version of it.”

On the other hand, if the individual chooses to focus on the fact that the virtual cockroaches are not real, the augmented reality-aided therapy may not work, said Assoc Prof Lim. But for extreme katsaridaphobia, the results may be more favourable as these patients may be too overcome by their fear to tell real cockroaches from virtual ones.


Ms Hwee, who has a cockroach phobia since she was seven years old, said you can try to desensitise yourself by using the same exposure method. From dashing out of a room when a roach shows up, she is now able to kill one and pick it up with tissue. “The key is to demystify the fear, to convince your brain that there really is nothing to be afraid of.”

Assoc Prof Lim agreed. “Familiarising one with a cockroach and understanding how it lives and survives could reduce the individual’s fear towards it,” he said. “As an individual gradually exposes himself to the phobia by addressing the immediate triggers causing it, he will realise that there is nothing to be afraid of.”

The trick is to do it in gradual, incremental steps over a period of time, said Ms Hwee, as rushing through the exposure process can backfire. “If you have encountered a cockroach, try to expose yourself to another within the next few months. Then, progress to killing one and the next one within the year. Once you have made the first kill, the subsequent ones will feel easier.”

And if you have worked up enough courage, there are game (or horror) apps that use augmented reality to let you push your phobia further. AR Cockroach is one such app. After scanning the floor, the app places a black hole from which countless realistic-looking – and some giant - cockroaches crawl out from. You can tap your phone’s screen to get rid of them but there’s no end to the game – you have been warned.


You know what they say about spotting a cockroach? There are probably many more you don’t see. Depending on the species, cockroaches take about 30 to 150 days to develop into adults, and a fully grown female cockroach can produce up to 90 egg cases. So, if a single female cockroach infiltrated your home, it may take a month before you see the ramifications, said Dr Chan. “The presence of early signs such as cockroach droppings and eggs tend to be missed, and risk developing into an infestation risk,” he said.

There are three common types of cockroaches found in Singapore. “German cockroaches are commonly sighted at carton boxes, while American cockroaches are usually found in the sewages or bin chutes. The brown-banded cockroaches are commonly found in cars,” said Dr Chan.

And no, pandan leaves do not kill cockroaches, no matter the species. “Cockroaches may dislike the smell and avoid them, but they are not killed. When the leaves dry up, they can become a food source for cockroaches and other pests,” he said. Using just cockroach traps isn’t enough either because they serve mainly as a means for monitoring – not for killing roaches, he said.

The best way to get rid of cockroaches is to prevent them from coming into your home in the first place, said Dr Chan. First, seal all possible entry points to your home with caulk, including crevices under the door and around the windows, and make sure your refuse chute has a good seal. Fix leaking pipes and taps as cockroaches proliferate in wet spaces.

Next, eliminate food sources. That means removing leftovers from tables and the kitchen counter. Store food in airtight containers or in the fridge. If you have cans and bottles to throw away, rinse them first before throwing them into the bin. And empty your bin daily.

Decluttering is another way to weed out their potential hiding places (case in point: German cockroaches). Start by getting rid of piles of newspapers and magazines, and storing items in plastic containers.

Then, bring in the big guns aka a pest control service. “They will effectively detect the presence of and apply suitable solutions to eliminate the cockroach infestation,” said Dr Chan. After that, use cockroach traps to monitor future signs of the pest.

Source: CNA/bk