Ants are very common and easy to find in our daily lives, even within a city. You only have to go to a park to find an anthill or a line of these beings collecting food. Unlike other insects such as cockroaches, ants are not usually seen with excessive displeasure by the majority of the population. In fact, many even appear in fables and stories as an example of tenacity, effort and organization.
However, for many people the very idea of seeing one of these beings means the appearance of extreme panic and anxiety, along with the need to flee from that being and avoid the places where they may be. It is what happens to those people with myrmecophobia .
Myrmecophobia: the phobia of ants
Myrmecophobia is understood as ant phobia, that is, a variant of anxiety disorder . It is one of the specific phobias linked to the presence of some type of animal, and this type of phobia is relatively frequent in the population.
As a phobia that supposes the existence of an irrational or disproportionate fear linked to the appearance of a stimulus or situation , in this case the ants. This fear or dread appears consistently every time the organism is exposed to the presence of ants, giving rise to an urgent need to flee or avoid being in their presence or maintaining contact with them. This need usually leads to the real avoidance of both ants and places where they frequently appear. If the person cannot run away, he or she can remain in front of the stimulation, but experiencing a very high level of anxiety and discomfort.
For those with this phobia, seeing a row of ants or even just one of them is a torment . The same thing happens with the vision of an anthill, even if there is no visible presence of its inhabitants in the vicinity. The panic they feel generates a high sensation of physiological activation, with the usual presence of sweating, trembling, tachycardia, hyperventilation, muscular tension and even gastrointestinal alterations such as nausea and vomiting. An anxiety attack or panic attack may occur. In addition, it is not uncommon that when visualizing an ant you may experience tingling or the sensation that they are climbing around your body.
Myrmecophobia can cause a person to avoid places such as the countryside, parks or green areas. This can lead to an interruption or limitation in the patient’s life, for example, avoiding taking the children to play in the park, playing outdoor sports or visiting rural areas. However, on a general level, ants do not usually affect most areas of life, since although it is relatively easy to find ants, they are not present or visible in most places we visit.
Although it is not a condition that is dangerous to health per se, in some cases it can lead to potentially dangerous behaviour . There are documented cases of people who have set themselves on fire because of panic when they noticed ants on their bodies.
Causes: an adaptive phobia?
The causes of myrmecophobia and other specific phobias are not entirely clear and depend largely on the individual case. There are different hypotheses on this subject, most of them linking biological aspects and the events and learning experienced by the subject.
In the case of phobias related to animals and especially to insects, as in this case, one of the most viable and considered hypotheses is Seligman’s theory of preparation . This theory stipulates that the fear or panic of certain animals is a product of evolution: throughout our development as a species, human beings learned that the sting of many insects was dangerous, with those with a natural tendency to avoid them surviving to a greater extent. Thus, the panic response that leads to the avoidance of the animal in question (in this case ants) would be the product of the inheritance transmitted by our ancestors.
Learning from the experience of aversive situations linked to ants is also another of the hypotheses raised, associating the figure of the ant to negative elements through conditioning.
Myrmecophobia is a phobic disorder that can be treated by therapy . The method that has been shown to be most effective in combating and resolving it is, although it may seem cruel, exposure therapy.
This therapy is based on exposing the patient to the feared stimulus, in this case ants, without engaging in avoidance behavior. Generally, to carry out the exposure therapy a gradual approach is required: before the exposure itself, patient and therapist jointly build a hierarchy of situations or anxiety generating stimuli, ordering them according to the degree of anxiety and panic generated. For example, seeing an ant hill and moving ants will not generate the same level of anxiety, or it is not the same to see an ant as to let it wander through our hands.
It is recommended to start with medium-intensity stimuli, although this will depend on what the patient is able to withstand. The subject will have to remain in the situation until the anxiety generated has largely disappeared and there is no need to avoid the situation. The same stimulus will be continued until at least two exposures with a minimum anxiety level are produced, before moving on to the next stimulus in the hierarchy. You can allow yourself a temporary escape if the anxiety overwhelms you, as long as you commit yourself to return.
Generally the most used and best evaluated version of exposure is live exposure (i.e. with real stimuli), but virtual reality can also be used (especially in this case) so that the therapist can control the stimulation received by the patient to a greater extent. Exposure in imagination can also be used in cases where there is very high initial anxiety, sometimes as a preamble to the live exposure.
It may also be useful to use relaxation techniques to reduce the anxiety felt by the patient, both when facing the stimulus or as a way to prepare for the exposure. However, this technique should be used to relax, and it is important that it is not used as a mental avoidance or escape from the feared stimulus. Sometimes it may be necessary to apply cognitive restructuring, in order to combat dysfunctional beliefs that may be the origin or maintenance factor of the panic (for example, belief in incompetence or the impossibility of facing one’s fear).
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Fifth edition. DSM-V. Masson, Barcelona.