How to cope physically and psychologically with a silverfish infestation
November 11, 2014 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I have a severe insect phobia, and now the task of eradicating a silverfish infestation in my apartment is causing this phobia to take over my life. How can I regain a feeling of safety about sleeping in my own bed at night when I am now facing a seemingly endless stream of silverfish entering my room each day? Many more details below the fold.

Background: Two months ago, I moved into a privately-owned, furnished student dorm to begin a study program in Europe. Several times since then, as someone who is highly phobic to many insects, I had the terrifying experience of being startled by a large silverfish crawling across the arm of the chair I was sitting in or watching a silverfish scamper up and down the wall behind my computer desk at night. Finally, as these sightings were becoming unbearable, I enlisted my boyfriend's help to eradicate the silverfish in my room, once and for all. But that's when my problems really escalated.

About a week ago, we vacuumed my room thoroughly and sprayed neurotoxic chemicals (tetramethrin and permethrin) into all the cracks between the baseboards and walls. We laid out a couple of tent-shaped sticky insect traps in the corners. And we took other measures to make my room a less attractive environment for silverfish: removed all food, set up a humidity absorber, and started running a fan perpetually for better air circulation. Since the day we sprayed the poison and set up the traps, I have been finding six to ten new silverfish corpses scattered on the floor near the walls on a daily basis, and they appear all throughout the day (some I find in the morning, some when I come home at night, etc.). With each new corpse I find, I respray it to make sure it's dead and to further treat the immediate area.

For me, with my phobia, it is absolutely horrifying to see so many new dead silverfish, every single day, especially the ones I find on the floor beneath my bed or between my bed and the wall. Disposing of their bodies is another huge challenge for me. I have worked up the courage to bring in the vacuum cleaner to dispose of each new corpse when I find it, but this is an extremely effortful undertaking that brings me to the verge of a panic attack every time (a strong fight-or-flight response, shuddering and heart racing, while thinking to myself, "What if the suction stops working and I just can't get rid of the corpse? What if it flies up into my face?"). Also, with each day that passes while the silverfish death toll rises to thirty and beyond with no end in sight, I am growing more and more fearful as I think about just how many silverfish may be living inside the walls of my room -- could there be a hundred, or even more? In the past day or so, the number of new daily corpses has decreased, but it doesn't bring me any relief. Now I believe that if I don't see corpses, it just means the poison has worn off and that the hordes of silverfish are still crawling in and out of the walls at night, but now retreating safely instead of dying at the chemical barrier. Checking thoroughly for silverfish around my bed and walls has become an obsession now, a routine I must go through a dozen times a day to make me feel "safe" upon entering or exiting my room and when getting into or out of bed.

So here is my question: Given that I've already taken all the physical measures in my power to control the silverfish (and the landlord refuses to take any action), what can I do to overcome the psychological terror and phobic reaction that dealing with this infestation exacerbates? How can I stop losing sleep and start to feel comfortable in my own bed again when I know that numerous silverfish may be crawling on the floor and adjacent walls each night? I can't afford therapy, and doctors in this country are reluctant to prescribe anti-anxiety medication, so I'm looking for more self-help, possibly CBT-based techniques (such as using specific mantras or imagery), to deal with my silverfish phobia. Any anectodal advice you have about the practical aspects of treating this kind of infestation would also be welcome.
posted by datarose to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Buy food grade diatomaceous earth. Sprinkle it generously along your baseboards. Return to your happy silverfish free life. That stuff is magic. You will have no need for psychological coping because they will be gone. I assume they die in the walls because I've never seen a dead one, either. And since you'll never see the dead ones, you'll never know how many there were.

If you're worried about the bed, sprinkle some around each foot of the bed too and pull your bed a little away from the wall. They'll have no way up.

As for the phobia...a fear can only be classified as a phobia if it interferes with your life. So you have two options for ending the phobia:

1. CBT. Learn to deal with silverfish.
2. Rid your living space of silverfish. Use the method above. Since the fear will no longer interfere with your living, it will no longer be a phobia. Problem solved.

I suggest you consider some combination. And yes, definitely diatomaceous earth. Better than any pesticide strip and you can treat a whole room or whole apartment at once (a strip just covers a small area).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:22 PM on November 11, 2014 [11 favorites]

Instead of spraying poison in the cracks, I'd use silicone caulking.
posted by Hermes32 at 2:28 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are you getting any professional help for your phobias? Because you also describe yourself as being phobic about dogs, and really and truly the best way to cope with these fears is to seek treatment for them.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:31 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree that you should continue to aggressively treat the problem. Continue to spray, use diatomaceous earth, caulking, etc.

Every time you see a dead bug, tell yourself "a dead bug can't hurt me. It won't crawl on me."
Every time you vacuum them up, picture the bug literally being sucked into a black hole from which it can never return.

Are you sure therapy isn't an option? If you're a student, is there low-cost treatment available on campus? Or low-cost providers that cater to students?

But if it's that serious, you just might need meds if therapy isn't available. Tell a white lie if you have to - "I was previously on this medication in the US. It helped immensely. I went off it for a while but I once again need this prescription to function properly." Don't take no for an answer.
posted by trivia genius at 2:34 PM on November 11, 2014

Best answer: I also have a phobia where [the thing] is horrible. It happens, I see it, I hear about [thing], and my mind goes "this is HORRIBLE this is HORRIBLE this is HORRIBLE."

If your phobia has a similar script in your mind, consider playing with the language. What helps sometimes, when I don't have a choice but to deal with it, is to say "this is unpleasant but I can handle it." Or "there are aspects of this that are horrible, yes." And the most effective, currently, for me is to keep in mind all the people I know who do not find it horrible but a neutral-to-bad thing that just happens sometimes. In a pinch, I can channel that nonchalance, and it works better than my standard response--at least, it will get me through the interaction until I can go home and cringe all night long (or react however I want to) about it.
posted by magdalemon at 2:43 PM on November 11, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure medication would be more helpful than throwing all your resources into solving the problem, unless you have other anxiety issues on top of this. I think even most mentally healthy non-phobic people would break down a little bit confronted by an endless stream of live and dead bugs into their living space. I just don't think it sounds necessarily a symptom of too much anxiety rather than a normal human reaction to bugs.

That being said the way I deal with bug problems is to keep repeating that they can't hurt you. They're gross, and unpleasant, but they can't hurt you and you're doing your best.
posted by bleep at 2:45 PM on November 11, 2014

Can you sleep somewhere else for a while? I freak out way more than I should about finding a total of 10 silverfish (in 5 years) in the bedroom, and go through the poison-spraying, vacuuming-five-times-a-day, watching-floor-before-getting-out-of-bed routine, too. It helps a lot to sleep in a save place for a few days (for me, my living room where I have never seen a silverfish) while traps and poison do their work. I don't have a problem with vacuuming the dead ones, but you could ask your boyfriend to do that after a few days. You'll be out of the routine of checking every corner or your bed and bedroom if you get back to your bedroom without seeing any silverfish corpses.
posted by MinusCelsius at 2:46 PM on November 11, 2014

I know someone who had good things to say about The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, and it has good reviews on Amazon. It's available in Kindle and paperback so hopefully you have a way to get some kind of copy in the country you are in.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:04 PM on November 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have very good results with this technique for reducing phobic thoughts, and folks here on AskMe seems to have found it helpful.
posted by Specklet at 3:05 PM on November 11, 2014

OK, first off, silverfish are fucking horrifying. I am totally with you there — I lived through a silverfish infestation that had me seriously considering if I could light all of the cabinets on fire.

The advice I'd give you is twofold:

For those horrible, anxious, intrusive thoughts, I find asking myself, "What's the worst that could happen?" to help put my phobias in perspective. Even if a dead silverfish bounced off your nose, that's just gross, not life-threatening. You can deal with it — in getting your shit together to move to Europe, I'm sure you faced more difficult challenges.

Second, something that at least helped me feel a little more in control: I stomped the shit out of any dead (or live) silverfish I found. Just fucking crush those creepy-ass evolutionary throwbacks. Grind 'em up with your foot. There's no danger, and you can really just turn your fear to anger and get some power back over them.

I totally sympathize. I hate them with a passion.

(I'll also say that a friend of mine a couple years back had a silverfish problem until she got a kitten, which happily ate silverfish until there were far, far fewer. Ditto crickets and other farm bugs.)
posted by klangklangston at 3:46 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

That sounds like an extreme phobia. Sucks.

Practically: Pull bed away from walls. Place feet in trays of diatomaceous earth. You're now in a silverfish-proof boat. Keep the lights on when you're there, they don't like light.

I wouldn't try to keep them penned up in the walls just yet... you're already over the worst of it (fewer bodies), and won't it feel great, when there have been no more bodies for a couple of weeks, and you're 100% certain you've killed 'em all?
posted by Leon at 3:48 PM on November 11, 2014

diatomaceous earth

One caveat here is that you should not continue to vacuum normally with this stuff. It's not toxic, per se, but you should avoid getting it into the air you are breathing. What the microscopically sharp silicon edges do to an insect's carapace is not something you want them doing to the inside of your lungs. DE is perfectly safe for e.g. gardening uses outside, but inside a house, spread around, and then pumped through a household vacuum, well, you really don't want that as a regular exposure.

I would get an N-95 respirator mask (looks like a surgical mask but has a molded sturdiness), around $15 at an hardware store -- they're sold for painting and metal/woodworking uses. You might also want to protect your eyes with dust goggles (the kind that snap back tight on your face). Finally, get an allergen filter and/or filter bag for your vacuum, to capture as much of it as possible. After vacuuming go out for a while to let everything settle.

The good news is it's very effective. It seemed to do the trick when I had a minor bedbug problem a few years back.
posted by dhartung at 3:55 PM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

Ok, not to flip you out, but many (if not most) box springs are made with cardboard- a silverfish smorgasbord. Lift up your mattress and box spring and spray between them and actually in the box spring itself. I've dealt with those fuckers and they suck. Summon your righteous anger at your space being invaded and annihilate them in BadAss style.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 5:28 PM on November 11, 2014

I totally get this. I have extreme phobia about cockroaches. Like the person who asked about "what's the worst that could happen if it touched your nose"... I kind of genuinely believe that I would just die instantly if I came into physical contact with a roach. Existence would just snuff out. I once left a dead roach in the back of a closet for several months because I couldn't even really acknowledge that it was there, let alone envision bending over, getting close to it to pick it up...

I lived in Austin, Texas, for two years. There are gigantic roaches living there, that FLY, and they're just like, all over. Like ants or spiders, it's just their natural habitat. And that was truly a serious factor in why I left Austin: I just couldn't handle the strain on my nerves anymore. I know it sounds so dramatic. But I was going into sweats with every dark speck I saw out of the corner of my eye.

If I were you, I would just move. I'm sure other people will think this is ridiculous, but if that were me and the silverfish were cockroaches, this would be putting a significant strain on my mental health.

Maybe this is not helpful... or maybe you just need permission to decide to move without feeling totally unreasonable.
posted by thebazilist at 5:29 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, I assumed it went without saying that once you sprinkled it, you should leave it there. If you sweep it up or vacuum it up, besides any negative health effects, it just won't work anymore because it's not there anymore.

I did the perimeter of my pantry, behind the shelves and and organizer baskets years ago and it's been silverfish free ever since. I just left the powder there since it was out of the way. By now some of it has probably been swept up, but not much. I think it mostly moves into the under the baseboards area over time. This would likely be different if it's an area where people are walking around.

My sprinkling technique was to get a sheet of paperboard (like an old cereal box) and hold it about a quarter inch from the baseboard, and sprinkle. Any excess that might otherwise have ended up far-ish from the wall slides down the paperboard onto the floor leaving a neat line very close to the baseboard. That way A) It doesn't look messy B) moving things around, sweeping, or walking around don't track the stuff everywhere.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:32 PM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I had bed bugs, I slept in a mosquito tent on my bed. (I brought pillows and blankets in with me.) It doesn't solve being in your room during the day, but it was wonderful for peace of mind at night.
posted by zeek321 at 5:48 PM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My understanding is that one of the most helpful strategies for dealing with phobias is called "systematic desensitization." Basically you come up with a hierarchy of things related to your phobia and practice feeling more relaxed while imagining or actually facing those things, and then as you master that for the easiest levels you move a step up to something scarier. Ie you might start by trying to feel relaxed by imagining one bug on the wall across the room, then once you can do that and stay relaxed you progress to there being more and them being closer, then to them crawling on you (or whatever your biggest fears are that you need to be able to tolerate the possibility of.) Or go from drawing a picture of a silverfish and being relaxed looking at it, to looking at a photo, to looking at a dead one from far away and then closer, to looking at a live one from far away and then closer.

I'm not sure the best way to combine imagining vs real life exposure into this hierarchy, but there are lots of websites on systematic desensitization if you Google it, and hopefully those can help you figure out your own plan for this if you want to try it.

A few websites that seemed helpful on a quick search:
posted by SockHop at 6:49 PM on November 11, 2014

...doctors in this country are reluctant to prescribe anti-anxiety medication...

Diphenhydramine (e.g., brand name Benadryl in the US) is probably available without prescription. It's primarily taken for allergies and sometimes for sleep but it also has an anti-anxiety effect.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:38 PM on November 11, 2014

Best answer: Valerian root is said to be available over-the-counter in France. Hopefully in your local tisane aisle, although the stuff has a strong smell, like a mix of dirt and honey. Risky to mix with other sedatives, opiates, or booze, because hello, it's the real deal (even though tea companies cheerfully add a pinch to all kinds of things, with no warning labels), so it'll magnify the effects of both.

For your overactive mind: try The Worry Trap, a mix of CBT and mindfulness techniques. It consists mostly of nifty exercises, like: write down your worries! Make origami out of them! Look how much smaller than you they are! Which sounds goofy as I type it, but much less so when you use them as part of the larger framework, which frankly is not only effective but also a cool experience in itself.
posted by feral_goldfish at 5:16 PM on November 17, 2014

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