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Wasp Exposure Therapy Gone Horribly Awry

December 23, 2009

I recently had a conversation with someone who shares my crippling fear of wasps. I suggested at the time trying out exposure therapy, the psycho-babble name for ‘facing your fears.’ We then realized this course of action would simply increase the chance of getting stung. Since wasp stings are the basis for spheksophobia, that might be counter-productive.

Look, fear of wasps is no laughing matter – unless you are an onlooker. I remember at one point losing my cool when a black object flew into my peripheral vision. After making what I thought was a deft evasive maneuver, I was met not with applause or the adoration of my female peers, but chuckles (the at, not with, variety) and derision. Wasp radar apparently has difficulty distinguishing Vespula vulgaris from Erynnis funeralis (it was a butterfly).

So clearly this is a problem. I have put my two dozen years of pop-psychology training from daytime TV and the movie Sleepless in Seattle to work and come up with, if I say so myself, a watertight solution applicable in every case regardless of circumstance.

Metallica wisely advised us to fight fire with fire, so let us fight irrationality with irrationality. The strategy is to take advantage of extremeness aversion, one of our many biases. Behavioral economists (and movie theaters and department stores) understand that when given three options, one of which is extremely undesirable, we will switch to the middle option as a compromise – the downsides of the middle option seem milder.

My theory is that the best method of exposure therapy is not to face your fear, but to face something far, far worse that you actually should be afraid of. The problem with exposure therapy is that it’s too slow. For fear of heights we might be taken to the edge of a three-foot precipice, then a six, then a nine… and so on. This has the counter-productive effect of building up the ultimate showdown (like the opposite of Mission Impossible 3). I say rip the damn band-aid off in one fell swoop.

Fear of wasps? Go to Japan for a chance encounter with a Super Hornet. Unlike the F/A-18, the Japanese Super Hornet is an inexpensive, indestructible killing machine capable of taking out 1,000 flying enemies an hour. Its stinger can dissolve human skin (rather than be used by muhjadeen in later conflicts). And it doesn’t need to be refueled on an aircraft carrier (well, as long as it has a ready supply of honeybee brain to feast upon after a ferocious battle). Take a look at these things and try to take wasps seriously again:

Now, my wasp-shy friends, imagine having one hover near your face for a full five seconds, wholly unexpected in otherwise serene Kyoto temple grounds (unlike other satirists, I practice what I preach. And rip off Mel Brooks.).

Sure, I’ve replaced my fear of wasps with the (more justifiable) fear of Super Hornets, but at least they are stuck in Japan; they are too heavy to fly in low-altitudes. That’s right, localize your fear to an absurdly specific situation that you’ll never, ever encounter! Just go ahead and bottle it right up – it’s brilliant in its simplicity.

I’m certain this could be applied in other ways. The key is to face the most extreme version of what you are afraid of so that the regular fear seems downright silly. Fear of clowns? Join a satanic mime cult.  Afraid of the dark?  Go spelunking one afternoon. In a CAVE. Enclosed spaces? Lock yourself up in a closet with nothing but books on tape as read by Gilbert Gottfried.  “It was the best of times, it was the — AFLAC!!!”

Sure, it might be traumatic, but at least you will lose respect for the thing you fear. And since you can’t fear what you don’t respect, your phobia is cured! Now how am I going to get this into the new DSM?

Let me note that I am not a doctor – don’t take this too far, or at all really.  Curing your fear of the ocean by riding a whale carcass during shark feeding time is not actually recommended.

…and bonus, the bees strike back!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather permalink
    December 25, 2009 12:33 am

    There is actually a treatment pretty similar called implosion therapy, or flooding. Another extreme form of exposure therapy based on the notion that phobias are caused and perpetuated by classical conditioning (good old Pavlov and his slobbering dog); they develop through negative associations with a stimulus. In flooding, a therapist exposes the patient to ginormous amounts of the feared object/animal and although initially, the patient will most likely freak the fuck out, the idea is that he/she can’t maintain that anxious state forever, so eventually the patient calms down and starts associating the originally feared stimulus with calmness instead of anxiety. Sounds good in theory, but obviously not for the faint hearted. Another alternative…eating your fears away? I just caught an episode of Extreme Cuisine in which Jeff Corwin feasts on a local delicacy that consists of wasps, their nest, and larvae…mmmmm…this is crazy, you should check it out:

    • December 26, 2009 5:04 am

      May I be the first to say that I am way ahead of you guys on eating my fear away?

  2. Auntie permalink
    December 28, 2009 4:22 pm

    Did you know that I’m taking a beekeeping class and will be a certified bee keeper this year? We have our first queens arriving in February. I’m thinking that smearing honey all over your face and leaving you in the shed with my bee boxes might be just as effective as your Super Hornet therapy. Let me know if you want to give it a try.

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