Me, Myself & My Blattiphobia

Priya Raju digs deep into her fear of cockroaches and comes up with some surprising possibilities. As for me, I am not afraid of cockroaches but I am afraid of creepy-crawly insects like spiders.
I’m terrified of roaches. I can’t see even a single grown roach or its picture, without freaking out. And I have plenty of company. Blattiphobia – the paralyzing fear of roaches – is something that millions of us suffer thru.

It seems ridiculous to me that any human being would be afraid of something as insignificant as a roach: most specimens are just 2 inches long. They are neither poisonous nor are they terrifying. Surely, I must be able to explain why I’m afraid of roaches. After all, everything has a reason.

It is true that roaches bite – they’ll even eat human skin. In fact, it will eat any edible organic matter that doesn’t move. Since they are nocturnal, the bigger roaches may nip your ears or your scalp. But unless you are a child, your skin just isn’t tender enough to suffer damages from a roach bite.

Most people who are afraid of roaches aren’t exactly worrying about their bite. Mosquitoes bite too, but when was the last time you saw anyone screaming their head off in mortal fear of skeeters?

There is a theory that such phobias represent genuine fears that helped our ancestors at some point or another. If that is the case, the fear should be much more prevalent than it is today. Plus, I see no earthly benefits for our ancestors: If a fear of pythons has been passed that way, it might be meaningful. I can hardly imagine 12 feet long, human-eating roaches ruling the terrestrial environment in the late Pleistocene.

It has been observed that a considerable segment of the people with roach phobia may also fear other creepy-crawlies such as snakes, spiders, lizards, scorpions, worms etc. So, some people argue that roach phobia is a displaced fear of these other creatures. Yes and No: I fail to see how one can mistake a roach for a snake or a scorpion. The rest: I think there’s a connection – more on that later.

It is true that scorpions have a segmented body like roaches. Well, if you want to see the resemblance, turn an obliging roach backwards to see its ugly arthropod body. When I was a child of 5, I called the adults to the foyer – with true old world hospitality – to welcome a visitor. My mom came in, with the cook in tow. My mom took one look at the “guest” & froze: ambling along the foyer was a huge scorpion. Evidently, it was pleased with the reception & was inspecting its new quarters with enthusiasm. Our cook let out a piercing howl, dropped the griddle on the scorpion in fright & sent it on a one-way trip to join its Maker.

What I’m saying is this: I have a healthy fear of scorpions, born out of respect for its sting. But that’s about it: No dread, no scanning the horizon for some sign of the oppressor, no inborn fear. So, I don’t see the connection here either.

How can anyone transfer their fear of snakes onto roaches? There is absolutely no resemblance. I read that a genus of roaches – Gromphadorhina – hiss like snakes. This hissing is loud enough to scare dogs. But, our common, garden variety roaches are mute – so, there is no mistaking a roach for a snake!

Some people argue that Fear Conditioning is the cause. This is defined as a synthetic fear that we develop on a neutral object, when we repeatedly see it while in a state of fear. I once saw a TV program of a woman scared of feathers. It was very painful to watch an otherwise normal woman, become hysterical at the sight of a single feather. People might develop it – say, for instance – if they had a cruel care-taker/guardian/parent who beat them up while wearing feather boas.

This again is far-fetched in the case of roach phobias. If something scary happened in one’s childhood, it might create a synthetic fear of something of considerable size – like a teddy bear, a cabbage patch doll or roller skates. A roach is just too small & insignificant to be noticed.

We can stop right here, shrug our shoulders & observe that phobias are irrational; so, trying to find a reason for them is futile: Or not. Perhaps if I try to explain my phobia in words, it will help. Here we go:

    Roaches are the epitome of ugliness. They have the most nauseating color combination in the entire animal kingdom – a dirty brown body with a yellow band near the neck. Their antennae are like limp hair – they have none of the cuteness of the bristly whiskers of a cat. Their legs are the stuff of nightmares – they have built-in spikes. When I was a child, a roach got into my T-shirt & waltzed all over my back, till my mom came to my rescue. My neck prickles when I think of how their legs felt on my skin.
    Their mobility is their worst trait – I can only utter primordial screams when they move in their characteristic erratic fashion. They can flatten their body like pancakes & slither into the smallest of cracks. They will almost always run in the least expected direction. And boy, can they fly.

Just read the above blurb: It doesn’t describe fear, but that’s what I set out to do. If I wanted to explain why I’m afraid of tigers – for instance – I’ll say, “becoz they might eat me, stupid”. You can’t argue with that logic.

My blurb may not describe fear – but it describes another very basic emotion: DISGUST.

But Fear and Disgust are distinctly different emotions. There are considerable differences in the neural pathways for these feelings. There are distinct facial expressions associated with both of them. The Amygdala makes us aware of our fears, while the Insula processes disgust.

One can argue that most stimuli create a mixture of emotions in us. So, could the roach trigger both fear & disgust in me? Possibly – but we still can’t get away from the fact that I haven’t used a single word in my blurb that expresses fear.

Blattiphobes show all the classic responses to disgust: Nausea, Avoidance & Sensitivity. In other words:

  • Nausea AKA Food Rejection – We are rejecting the roach as food. EWWW! Enough said.
  • Disease Avoidance – By running away, we are avoiding them like the plague. Roaches have the repulsive habit of eating & shitting in the same place. If you leave food open, just throw it in the trash. Chances are, the roach has decorated your food with its pee. Did I mention that the GI tract of roaches has all the disease-carrying germs in the neighborhood? This is because they eat anything. Their feces will have representative samples from all the germs in their gut.
  • Sensitivity AKA Contamination Prevention – We are trying to ensure that the stupid roach doesn’t get into our mouths. If that happens, we would have to vomit till we don’t have any innards.

Let’s consider this: Insula takes some time to respond. Amygdala responds almost instantaneously. This indicates that our brain needs some time to process the disgust-relevant image – unlike fear.

There is a theory that the fear of roaches is hereditary. Neither of my parents are afraid of roaches, but I have several aunts & cousins (all on my father’s side) who’ll shriek & bring the house down if they saw a roach. But statistically, there is no proof that this fear is passed on from generation to generation.

But something else is passed on: Sensitivity to Disgust. Whether it is passed on genetically or thru social conditioning – we don’t know yet. I would argue that it is a combination of both.

It is well known that roaches are carriers of disease. So, if someone has a heightened sense of disgust, they’ll try their best to avoid roaches – or, spiders, rats, worms & lizards. All of them have or had a reputation of spreaders of disease. Or, they look plainly repulsive.

It is interesting to note that most other phobias are a symptom of an anxious personality: While Heightened Disgust manifests itself as phobia of small animals.

Tail Piece

I’m offering this as corroborating evidence. My brother has a phobia for lizards. We – me, my brother & our father – also have Migraines, Motion Sickness & Vertigo. In short, ailments which make us very nauseous – perhaps this proves that we have a tendency to be disgusted: Since nausea is an essential element of disgust.

I read that Migraine sufferers have low levels of Serotonin. Lowered levels of this neurotransmitter result in obsessive or compulsive behavior. My father is painfully methodical in everything. My brother is compulsively clean. I obsess about every little detail in anything I do. In short, none of us are easily satisfied. Classic symptom of low Serotonin, I think.

So, here is what I wonder. Do people with low serotonin levels have phobias of creepy-crawlies? Will my Blattiphobia be cured temporarily if I get a Serotonin injection? It would certainly be interesting to try it out.



  1. Quote
    Anonymous said January 3, 2007, 11:46 am:

    A very well thought out article.

    I read a book on evolution called “Decent of Women”, it talks about fear being passed on through evolution. It has been observed that the fear for snakes and spiders is very rampant and cannot be explained by any observable factors. According to the book, one part of our evolution was spent on the sea shore. The biggest pests were crabs and eels. Since crabs resemble spider and eels snake that is why large portion of humanity still carries the fear. The book goes on to say that if you ask people to describe why they hate snakes they would say “they are slimy” which is not true for snakes but eels.

    I am not sure how scientific the book is and don’t have it with me so writing this from memory. It was a very interesting book, though. Written by Ellen Morgan, I think


  2. Quote
    Anonymous said January 4, 2007, 10:20 am:

    Thanks Archana. The book sounds interesting. I will check it out.

    – Priya Raju

  3. Quote
    Anonymous said January 12, 2007, 9:21 am:

    I found out the exact name of the book today.

    The Descent of Woman – Elaine Morgan.

    I was trying buy it. Could not find in any of the local book stores. It was available only in Amazon.

  4. Quote

    Excellent article indeed. You have researched very well. I feel you have left out the following view point so I produce something below for your reading pleasure.

    I do not have nausea when driving up the hills, no migraine, no spondilitis or vetigo etc.
    I’m above 40 now and I have a dreadful fear of lizards and frogs. I began researching my life backwards and wanted to know since when I had this fear?

    was it from birth ?

    I was surprised. I wanted to know more about myself when I was 10 years or so. I talked to many friends who were more or less my age and all of them vouched together that I was known as the “garden lizard” (oonaan in tamil) and “house lizard” slayer. Mind you, house lizards may be harmless but sometimes garden lizards are poisonous. They told me I used to single-handedly catch a lizard small or big and cut out its head and that used to be my hobby !! and I used to tie strings around frogs too..

    When did it all change ?

    I was amazed that I did all that back then, since I cannot go near 2 ft of a small house lizard leave alone a garden lizard now !. So I continued my research and one day my MOM was talking about how I used to terrify others by showing them lizards to them etc. I dug deeper. Voila got it. There was this aunty of mine. One day I showed her a lizard on her table and she let out such a blood curdling shriek that I was grounded for 4 days by my Mom. I was taken aback by her scream but at that time (I guess I was about 12 years or so) nothing changed I continued to be the all powerful lizard slayer

    End of School

    I did not get admission into one of the prestigious colleges in north India. All of my friends got admitted. ONE year I was at home doing nothing. I remember crying crying and crying for a whole night, the night I knew that I did not get admission. Progressively during that year the fear of lizards started coming up, the fear came up so much that I even remember asking my friends who stayed in an north indian college hostel what were the size of lizards in north india ? Phew ! and when I started college i.e age 18 or so my fear of lizards became total .


    1) Either that wild shriek let out by my aunty when I was 12
    2) Or the continued depressed state my mind was in when I was 18 or so (for about a year)

    could have contributed to my fear

    and mind you I am still NOT afraid of roaches at all.

    More evidence

    Since either of the above reasons could have been the cause, I was very careful when showing my fear of lizards to my children and my eldest boy was so unafraid of cockroaches or lizards and he too was turning out to the slayer of insects like his dad in his younger days.. This continued till his age of 7.

    Till one day
    My wife is really scared of both roaches and lizards. Now I used to tell her countless times not to show her fear before the children BUt one day when she and my eldest son where alone in the lift there was this huge cockroach and my wife had let out a loud shriek indeed. It was so loud that neighbours came to help.

    fast forward

    you guessed it right. My son 10 years old now is very very afraid of cockroaches now

    I think I have zeroed it on the cause of this phobia for roaches and lizards. **The shrieks let out by elders**.

    So if you really really really want your son or daughter to grow without this lizard phobia or cockroach phobia please please please do not shriek or cry out loud in front of them. When you see a lizard or cockroach in a room and if your child is also there, unless there is a danger of the child touching the insect, just calmly walk away from the room. This will do a world of good to him/her.

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