Here’s the good news about bedbugs: They don’t transmit diseases and aren’t a sign of how clean a person is. And yet having to deal with bedbugs can be incredibly distressing from a psychological standpoint. (1,2)
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Bedbugs are particularly disturbing because they invade such an intimate and personal space, says Katherine Maloy, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City. It’s your bedroom, the place where you wind down at the end of the day. Thinking that bedbugs might come into your or your child’s bed in the middle night can certainly incite fear, as can the distress of having to deal with an infestation. (3)
Dr. Maloy says most people’s fear of bedbugs falls into one of two categories:
- A real fear, as in people who are currently dealing with a bedbug infestation.
- A perceived fear, meaning people are afraid they have them even though the issue has not been confirmed. About half the time, a homeowner mistakes another bug for a bedbug. Carpet beetles, for instance, look like bedbugs and tend to live in bedrooms just like bedbugs, but they don’t bite. In some cases, this fear might inspire a person to take drastic measures to clear out their home without having confirmed an issue in the first place. (4)
Dealing With Bedbugs Can Lead to Sleep Problems, Social Withdrawal, Anxiety, and More
Living through a bedbug infestation can involve a roller coaster of emotions. Simply dealing with the logistics of having bedbugs — packing up and washing your belongings, as well as potentially having to vacate your home for a few weeks — can be stressful and exhausting. “It’s expensive, it’s a lot of work, and it’s socially isolating because if people find out you have them, they won’t want to come over,” Maloy says. “It takes a lot of concerted effort to get rid of them, and it’s very overwhelming.”
Add to that logistical nightmare the time you have to spend in limbo waiting to see if the bedbugs return after treatment.
“There’s this sort of uncertainty of, ‘Are they gone, or are they not gone?’ That really aggravates [people],” Maloy says. “There’s this period of time when you’re sort of waiting to see if they come back, and that’s a lot of uncertainty that’s very hard to tolerate.”
Dealing with bedbugs can also result in:
- Trouble Sleeping Whether it’s a fear of actual bedbugs or perceived, it can be tough to relax and fall asleep at night. (5)
- Nightmares (6)
- Social Withdrawal Even though having bedbugs isn’t a reflection of one’s cleanliness, there’s still a stigma attached to it. Some people assume they won’t be welcome at friends’ houses if everyone knows they have a bedbug issue at home, so they may voluntarily isolate themselves and minimize social interactions.
- Flashbacks to Infestations That Have Occurred in the Past
- Anxiety and Depression Maloy says dealing with bedbugs can be very troubling to someone’s self-image, and if it’s not dealt with appropriately, it could lead to anxiety or depression.
- Worsening of Other Mental Health Issues The time, money, and unknowns involved with treating bedbugs can be stressful for anyone, but it’s particularly stressful for people who are in a vulnerable state already. “[Having bedbugs is] difficult to sort out for the average person,” Maloy says. “If you layer on top of that a psychiatric illness or anxiety disorder, it can be extremely destabilizing.” One case study profiled a 62-year-old woman with bipolar disorder who ultimately committed suicide following a repeated bedbug infestation where she lived. (6)
In a study published in The American Journal of Medicine, researchers observed that the psychological effects of dealing with bedbugs maps to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, though more evidence is needed to establish that link in a more conclusive way. (7)
Taking Swift Steps to Get Over the Emotional Toll of Bedbugs Is Important, Too
The Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences says if you have bedbugs, there’s no reason to panic. Even though it can be disturbing, there are ways to successfully get rid of bedbugs, and they don’t pose a threat to your physical health. (8)
Still, they can definitely threaten your mental health. So if you’re struggling with a bedbug issue or having trouble getting over a past infestation, Maloy suggests:
- Treat the bedbug issue in your home quickly and efficiently. “Be as proactive as possible when dealing with the issue,” Maloy says. “A lot of times people hide it from their landlord and they hide it from their neighbors because they don’t want to be known as the person who brought bedbugs into the apartment building.” But it’s important to ask for help to get rid of the bedbugs as soon as possible so they don’t continue to reproduce and create an even bigger problem.
- Recognize the issue is not a reflection of you or your hygiene. Maloy recalls that during a bad bedbug infestation in New York City several years back, people were being bitten while staying in the city’s most luxurious hotels. Recognizing that bedbugs can affect anyone, anywhere can help you feel better. “It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you — you were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Maloy says. “Try to remind yourself: ‘This isn’t a judgment of me. This is something unfortunate that’s happened to me that I have to deal with.’”
- Remember, it may not be bedbugs. If you’ve dealt with bedbugs before (either recently or a while back), any itch or bite can incite a panic that they’re back. But realistically consider if the itch or bite you’re getting alarmed over might in fact be a mosquito or other type of bite. Particularly if you haven’t seen the bugs or noticed other warning signs, it may not be bedbugs.
- Seek professional help if needed. Ask yourself, Is this interfering with my life? If it is getting in the way of your happiness, your relationships, or your ability to work, then it may be time to reach out to a professional. “It’s the same thing I tell people who come in and ask, ‘Am I depressed? Do I have an anxiety disorder?’” Maloy says. “If you’re so preoccupied by it and so stressed that you’re not sleeping, you’re thinking about it all the time, you’re not talking to your friends, or you feel like the world is ending — then you probably should go talk to a professional.”
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