How do I deal with the psychological effects of bedbugs?
September 13, 2010 7:34 PM   Subscribe

How to deal with the residual emotional/psychological effects of a bedbug infestation?

I've been dealing with a fairly mild bedbug infestation for a few months. Just over eight weeks ago, I woke up with a few bites on my arm, and an inspection of my bed turned up one live bedbug. Luckily, I have very good landlords, who immediately called in a pest-control firm, one that has a good reputation, and performed the kinds of chemical treatments that places like Bedbugger recommend as being particularly effective. The inspector said that I had one of the mildest infestations he'd seen in his 15 years of experience -- that I had been fortunate to catch the problem early. My landlords ordered two more applications of chemicals since just to be safe, and each time, the same inspector found no further evidence of bedbugs (but sprayed the apartment anyway). My last spraying/inspection was just a few days ago.

I also threw a lot of my own money at the problem, buying encasements for my mattress, box spring, and futon mattress. I got rid of all of the extraneous crap in my bedroom, washed/dry cleaned all of my clothes and sealed them up (the vast majority of them remain bagged and sealed in tubs in my storage unit -- I've been wearing the same six outfits for eight weeks now), and replaced, where I could, some of my wooden furniture with plastic or metal replacements (my dresser got discarded and replaced with clear plastic bins, for example).

I have not had any bedbug bites since the original three, over two months ago, nor have I seen any evidence of more bugs myself. My landlords said that they would be happy to pay for more treatments if I felt they were necessary.

However, I've been dealing with some serious anxiety and paranoia issues that I've never had on this scale before, and it's making me very worried about my mental health. My question is, how do I deal with this?

Some examples:

1. I've been vacuuming my bedroom every day (and my entire apartment every other day) as a preventative measure. I am thorough - vaccuming cracks in the floors, baseboards, everything. But each time I do it, I keep feeling like I'm not doing enough, and I keep going over and over and over the same spots again, even thought I've already vacuumed the place thoroughly.

2. I visited a friend of mine yesterday, and before I left, I changed into clothes and used a bag that had been freshly washed/dried/sealed in plastic bags, flip flops that I had doused in isopropyl alcohol before wearing, and inspected my body for bugs/bites, etc before leaving. I did everything I could think of to keep any possible bugs from coming with me. Still, though, all the time I was there, I kept thinking that I didn't do enough, that somehow I'd let one of them slip through. All the way home, I kept thinking about my friend and his family waking up with bites all over them. I'm still thinking about this.

3. I got a mosquito bite yesterday while I was out walking by the local river. I know it was one because I saw the mosquito. It's not really itchy, and I know it's not a bedbug bite, but just seeing it there keeps making my heart race and all of my anxieties come back.

This is not normal. I've never experienced this before. How do I take care of these psychological effects? None of the actual bites were this bad, and I was totally calm and collected during the actual process of washing and disposing of things. It seems like the problem is even worse now, even though I haven't had any bites for a while and the inspector has found no actual signs of bugs in my apartment.

Throwaway email address, if you want it:
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I know exactly what you're going through. I had a small infestation that was quickly dealt with, yet I was psychologically scarred for weeks or months afterward. It really, really surprised me how uncontrolled my heeby-jeebies became. What if they're here? What if they're there? What didn't I do? What didn't I do enough? Etc. In the end the only thing that saved me was sheer exhaustion and further, unrelated crises.

This doesn't appear to have been studied much, or at all, but I think there's something weird about how bedbugs bite, or how humans have adapted to their bites. It was really, really strange to be having these mad, paranoid thoughts for days on end. But it did dissipate with time. I think you just need to keep telling yourself it's part of the reaction.

In other words, your problem really isn't the paranoia. That's a defense mechanism. You don't want to get bit again -- you really, really don't want to get bit again. That part is normal and natural. The problem is your anxiety about this reaction.
posted by dhartung at 8:02 PM on September 13, 2010

Just heard about this:, no really, no joke.

As for the psychological stuff, do talk to a professional.
posted by sammyo at 8:06 PM on September 13, 2010

Time will help with this. I had some mice in my house a while back, and didn't notice their invasion for a while until I opened a lower cupboard and actually saw one of them. I've never had mice before and honestly hadn't done a good cleaning for a while so when I started to look, I saw signs everywhere. Especially the droppings. They were everywhere in hidden nooks and crannies. I got rid of the mice, sadly one of them died and the rest of my family especially my daughter, wouldn't stop giving me grief over scaring the "poor thing" to death. I made a policy about food not being left out, EVER, sealed everything that used to be in cardboard in plastic containers, moved all of the food containers to above shoulder level, and closed up the hole I suspected was their entry point.

But I'll tell you, every so often I'll come across a dropping or two that I must have missed in the original cleanup and my mind just goes nuts "AAAAAAA the little fuckers are back, this is WAAAAARRRRRR!". I still check everywhere that a mouse would be enticed to go, I look for the trails of droppings again and find nothing so it's not a new infestation, just leftovers from before but I can't quite shake the "what if" feeling. Happily, I will say that the feeling has faded quite a bit over time and I no longer feel any sort of freakout at random.

Just give it time. It will get better.
posted by barc0001 at 8:11 PM on September 13, 2010

I may be outing myself as a bonafide crazy person, but I went through some of this and didn't even have the damn bugs. I recently moved to NYC (where the bedbug terror alert system is always at orange) around the same time as some friends in my old city were dealing with their own bedbug infestation, and I just snapped for a while. I was reading constantly, searching my mattress, boxspring, and headboard daily, and vacuuming the cracks in my room like a nutjob. It's straight up unsustainable to live like that, and rationalizing with yourself never really works, so eventually I just MacGyvered myself one of these by attaching some corrugated cardboard to a white piece of paper fastened to my boxspring. It might not even work, but just knowing that I have some sort of detection method in place reminds me to slow down and makes me way less likely to get into that manic search-and-clean mode. Might work for you, too.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:29 PM on September 13, 2010

posted by DharmaSock at 8:31 PM on September 13, 2010

Normally I dismiss evolutionary explanations, but if ever there was a time for them, it may be now. I've read research that proves it's harder to lose a fear of biological things than of things like guns. (Ah, see the top of column two here.) And this is now just me hypothesizing, but it seems like invisible threats like bugs (and alien rays) are near the top of the paranoias that people develop easily. It makes total sense that your mind would be primed to develop a worry here.
posted by salvia at 8:37 PM on September 13, 2010

Yeah, I don't have bedbugs but like barc0001 I had mice, and even though I've moved to an awesome new modern building with nary a fly to be seen, I still have lingering mouse trauma - hallucinations and fears of what might be in my peripheral vision. But it's lessening dramatically as the actual creatures recede into the past. Give it time.
posted by CunningLinguist at 8:53 PM on September 13, 2010

Nthing that time will help. In the meantime, try some relaxation techniques, tell yourself out loud and sharply "stop" when your head starts spinning out with bedbuggy worries, drink some chamomile tea, or try acupuncture. In other words, try to deal with this as a genuine and legitimate anxiety issue. You have every reason to be angsting about this--don't make it worse by telling yourself you're not normal!
posted by gubenuj at 11:38 PM on September 13, 2010

I react incredibly badly to their bites, so if we have bedbugs in the apartment, I'm the first to know.

Surprisingly, this makes me feel a lot better about bedbugs. It means that when (not if) we get bedbugs trying to set up house in our home again, we will be able take care of them quickly before they start breeding.

If you try to frame your experience with bedbugs like that, it might give you some comfort.

And now, for some science to soothe your worries.

If you've been sleeping in your home most nights, and you haven't been bitten in two months, there aren't bugs in your apartment.

Bedbug eggs hatch in 2 weeks. That's why the exterminator comes back and does a second and sometimes a third treatment. You're well past the egg-hatching period.

After they hatch, bedbugs will feed roughly every 3 days if near a food source (ie: you). The adults can live for up to a year without food, but only if they have to (ie: if they're contained in a ziplock bag & stuck to the fridge door as a warning to others).
posted by burntflowers at 12:06 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi! Welcome to my world! I had bedbugs, I got rid of them, and I was no longer infested! Living proof that it can be done! Fuck you, bedbugs; I beat ya! I killed ya! I AM THE VICTOR and NOW EVERYTHING IS OKAY!

I continued believing that EVERYTHING IS OKAY until a girl I was dating asked me, "Have you considered therapy about the bedbug thing?" And I was like, "Why? I'm good!" And she was like, "No, good people don't leave diatomaceous earth caked in a thick layer under their bed." So it's nice that you're actually acknowledging your own paranoia! Congrats!

Really, the only thing I cn recommend is time -- your nervous system has very sensibly adapted to the idea that THERE'S SOME STUFF I GOTTA DO TO KILL THESE FUCKERS, and you just need to let it slowly shift into not freaking out about that; the closest metaphor I can think of for this kind of thing is allowing yourself to slowly drift away from being in love after a breakup. So basically: you're not a weirdo here, you just need some time.

In the meantime, I suggest melatonin for helping you sleep through the night and allowing you the neurochemical reserves to deal with anxiety throughout the day. When you feel like you might be going a bit over the top about the paranoia, you should remember the following routine:

1) deep breath.
2) "Self, you're being crazy. This is crazy. Don't be crazy. This is like as how a crazy person acts."
3) "I will be okay, because other people went through exactly what I went through, and they are okay. I know this because they told me about it on the internet. They told me they are okay now, and soon I will be okay like they are."
posted by Greg Nog at 8:10 AM on September 14, 2010 [6 favorites]

Another voice of chiming in to say your reaction is pretty common and normal. Time helps, and coming up with other goals to focus on. As you say, at this point you don't have bedbugs, so you don't need to vacuum obsessively anymore. What would you rather be doing with that time? Think of all those other personal goals, and focus on them instead. It'll take time, as everybody says, but you can retrain your thinking.
posted by ldthomps at 1:31 PM on September 14, 2010

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