Bed Bugs: Facing the Emotional Turmoil of an Infestation

An empty, unmade bed with a plaid blanket in the middle of a roomBed bugs.

The mere mention of these critters sends shivers down my spine and can bring immediate itchiness to anyone aware of these pests and their elusive nature. Bed bugs are small, parasitic insects that tend to take up habitation in—you guessed it—the beds of us poor, unsuspecting humans, then feed on our blood when we sleep. They are in the news frequently and may have even sprung up in your area. Perhaps you have encountered bed bugs in your home or in your travels. This has been an epidemic for several years, but when a person is struggling with an infestation it is rarely talked about.

Unfortunately, bed bugs carry with them a certain stigma. There is a misguided perception they exist only in homes or dwellings that are not clean. Also, people may be “bugged out” when they find out someone has a bed bug issue. Perhaps they have read how easily they are transmitted from one person or place to another and want as much distance between them and the other person/place as possible.

At least that’s what many people with bed bugs fear—and what can keep them from turning to others for emotional support.

On top of the sense of isolation people may experience because of bed bugs, they must contend with the simple knowledge that in their own sanctuary, the place they call home, they have been invaded by a near-invisible parasite that feeds on you in your most vulnerable state. Argh! If your skin is crawling just reading this, welcome to the experience of a person living with bed bugs.

Bed bugs may have invaded your space, but they do not need to take up all the space in your head!

Not only is treating a bed bug infestation costly both socially and financially, it can take a serious toll on mental health. I have worked with countless individuals dealing with these pests. I have also had my own bed bug scares, nearly sending me off the deep end. What I learned from others’ experiences and my own is that these bugs don’t simply impact our physical environment; perhaps worse, they invade our minds and can lead to an experience of extreme stress and isolation.

Perusing the internet on the topic of bed bugs could bring any person to a panic, whether they are struggling with the issue or not. My goal with this article is to provide anyone dealing with an infestation with some tips and tools to help them calm down and emotionally cope with their unexpected visitors. Bed bugs may have invaded your space, but they do not need to take up all the space in your head!

How to emotionally cope with bed bugs in eight steps:

  1. First, know you are not alone. A simple walk around my neighborhood in Philadelphia showcases countless mattresses thrown outside in what may mark a first panicked attempt at getting rid of bed bugs. A simple internet search on bed bugs yields thousands of results, indicating this problem is being experienced by way more people than just you. You may feel like a social pariah when dealing with bed bugs, but the truth is, due to the stigma and secrecy associated with bed bugs, you never know who else is dealing with them. Take refuge in the simple knowledge you are not the only one suffering the insufferable.
  2. Use some positive self-talk. Say to yourself, “I am a separate person from this problem. This is simply just a problem I am coping with, and it is not my entire life, nor does it represent who I am.” Think about all your positive roles and qualities. Parent, teacher, kind person, clean person—whatever makes up who you are, remind yourself of these things and that you are not just a person who has bed bugs. Each time the thoughts creep back in regarding the bugs, actively change your thoughts. It is not worth it to obsess about them; all you can do is proactively try to take care of the problem, and otherwise try to give your mind a break.
  3. Get outside. If the weather permits, do yourself a huge emotional favor and go for a walk. Sit under a tree. Bring a book. Nature has the power to heal us and bring us back to our sanity. In this case, it also gets you out of your hellhole of a home! Remember, you do not deserve the stress of these bugs. You deserve a break from the environment they have invaded, as well as a mental and emotional break.
  4. Remember that bed bugs are not really any different than other types of bugs. Think of them as less dangerous mosquitoes. Unlike mosquitoes, beg bugs are not known to be vectors of disease. Yes, they are gross. No, they can’t kill you.
  5. Use deep breathing. Breathe in, breathe out … slowly. Count your breaths as you focus on the sensation of breathing in and out. What does it feel like as the breath enters your nose, travels down to your lungs, and then begins to release? See, you already forgot about the bugs. Deep breathing is a form of meditation that helps us focus on the experience of the body rather than the constant thoughts roaming around our heads. Give yourself a moment to stop thinking about the bugs and to relax your nervous system.
  6. Get some exercise. Exercise has the power to not only increase your endorphins (feel-good chemicals in the brain), but it can get your mind off the problem. Exercise IN your home. Take back YOUR territory while pumping iron and gaining a sense of power and control. If you can’t stomach the thought of spending another moment near the source of the infestation, go to the gym or exercise outside. Special note: Yoga is wonderful for stress and can help you be kind to yourself during this terrible time.
  7. Tell someone! Don’t keep this to yourself. Yes, it can feel intimidating telling someone about an issue you might feel embarrassed about, but the relief of bringing someone into the experience of this issue can be a huge help and can take away the sense of isolation often incurred when someone has bed bugs. Tell a few people if you can, and make sure they know you don’t want this information passed around. Ask for a hug, if you feel so inclined; physical touch can be comforting.
  8. Lastly, do everything in your power to get rid of the bugs. Call an exterminator and follow all advice they give. The bugs CAN be beat and you WILL conquer them. Don’t allow the bugs to make you feel incapable and powerless—you are not.

In the end, you will get rid of the bugs. For now, the true goal is maintaining sanity and not allowing the bugs to wreak havoc on both your emotional and physical health. As with many other challenges we face, the worry is the worst part.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Alexis Hansen, LCSW, therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 18 comments
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  • zoe

    zoe

    July 28th, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    I… can’t… even… imagine…

  • Matt

    Matt

    July 28th, 2016 at 1:34 PM

    My daughter came home form camp last year stating that one of the cabins where they stayed had been found to have bed bugs. I knew that she was safe and probably didn’t carry them home with her because she was in another part of the camp, but still, it is something that just sort of makes your skin crawl to even think about it.

  • leigh

    leigh

    July 28th, 2016 at 4:26 PM

    They may not be any different than any other bugs but it is a heck of a lot more difficult in addition to a lot more expensive to try to get rid of them.

  • Anita

    Anita

    July 29th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    I guess this has always been a problem but it seems like it has gotten more prevalent in the past few years?
    What is going on with that?

  • Alexis Hansen, LCSW

    Alexis Hansen, LCSW

    July 30th, 2016 at 10:07 AM

    Anita – I have read up on this issue a lot. Researchers believe that the spike is related to increased travel by American’s. Bed bugs have historically been seen as a “developing world problem” and haven’t been a huge issue in the USA. Researchers also believe it is probably linked to the ban on many pesticides, including DDT, decades ago, and the problem is just catching up. It does sound like scientists continue to work on finding different methods to kill them, so hopefully an less expensive method is just around the corner!

  • frank

    frank

    July 29th, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    Hotels are particularly vulnerable because you never know who is staying there and who is not. And I have worries all the time about how they are cleaned and how thoroughly they are cleaned. I travel a lot and there is this little nagging fear of getting bed bugs and then taking them home with me.

  • Renee

    Renee

    July 29th, 2016 at 6:47 PM

    Your article is timely . For the third time since September 2015 I have been invaded with bed bugs today. I am sick with the thought of attending family functions this weekend and beyond. So I have cancelled. My apt/van will be treated in a week with Heat for 4-6 hours. But after two prior episodes what may expect in another three months? I have heard other units in my building are being treated these past three months and as recently as last week. When does it end!? The emotional toll, thoughts of not feeling as though I dare have visitors or go to someone else’s home, when can I feel it’s safe? I don’t want to be the one to unknowingly carry a bed bug into another’s life. How is a person to feel? I would like to hear from others dealing with this. May God Bless us all!

  • Alexis Hansen, LCSW

    Alexis Hansen, LCSW

    July 30th, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    Ugh, Renee, that sounds AWFUL! That is exactly the insidiousness nature of these creatures, and one of the dilemmas of maintaining mental health when suffering with an infestation. How can we know when they are gone? When are we safe?? I am happy to hear that other apartments are being treated, because I do believe that an entire apartment complex needs to be treated to actually get rid of the problem. Hopefully others that have experience bed bugs write back to you. I have started to think that there needs to be some type of support group or internet community for people to turn to in order to cope with this situation. Perhaps there is already one out there?

  • Abbey E

    Abbey E

    July 1st, 2018 at 5:02 PM

    Hey Renee,
    I hope that you the whole building was able to be treated or at least you were able to get out of there and attempt to move on with things. We are working on getting out of a situation like that… and the biggest thing that’s helping me is knowing that we are moving (AND fortunately for us, we only have found one this time) – emphasis on THIS time (ie. this happened last year and some came into our apartment from another apartment that had a tenant that didn’t want to report it because he didn’t want to upset the landlord…. ). We have heard of others having them off and on the last couple years…. and we are done AND I have to be ok with the idea of getting rid of some things for comfort/because they are old/I don’t want to be reminded of this place… but more so doing what we can to make sure we don’t take any with us. As you say, giving them to someone else is just not ok! Anyhoo…. as I vented above ^ … I hope since it’s been a couple years – you have found some peace from it/them.

  • Janey

    Janey

    July 30th, 2016 at 11:08 AM

    I have had bed bugs at my house too so I know that there is shame associated with it. You have to do so much to get rid of them and then it is like you have to continue to be vigilant long after you think that you have done everything. It was a mess and honestly I did not even want to tell anyone that I was going through this because I was embarrassed.

  • McCoy

    McCoy

    July 31st, 2016 at 8:59 AM

    any time I see a mattress on the side of the road thrown away, this is what I think probably happened

  • Julia

    Julia

    August 2nd, 2016 at 7:32 AM

    I have seen where whole populations have been displaced, like if an apartment building is infested and the people all have to move out.
    You think why is this happening to me and what could I have done to prevent this?
    It is not only an inconvenience, but you know, bigger than that because people have actually had to leave their homes and find somewhere else to live.

  • Sandee

    Sandee

    December 11th, 2016 at 3:55 PM

    I’m in the midst of my first bed bug go-round. We suspect that they came into our house via my grown daughter’s friend or the moving company that moved my daughter’s things in with us. It started in the middle of July. I read and research and thought I’d gotten rid of them on my own (vacuum, steam clean, spray, put all clothes through the dryer, etc.). They reappeared last week, unfortunately with 15-20 bites on my granddaughter who had spent the night. I immediately called a heat-treat company as I’ve read the bugs are virtually immune to most pesticides (except DDT) and with asthma issues, pesticides are not an option. I’ve spent the last week running every single folded item through the dryer for 30 minutes, then tightly bagging them. The heat treat guys come tomorrow and will be back to reinspect in two weeks. They also offer a 3-month guarantee which I’ll take them up on should I see ONE bug. Yes, it’s been traumatizing (2 weeks before Christmas at that!) but hopefully I’m in the homestretch. Also learned that there are “bed bug dogs” who can actually sniff them out – if I had an extra $15k to put one through the training, I’d do it in a heartbeat!

  • Alexis Hansen, LCSW

    Alexis Hansen, LCSW

    December 12th, 2016 at 6:18 AM

    Yikes! I am sorry to hear this! That sounds like the familiar nightmare one can read about all over the internet regarding bed bugs. If you are truly interested in having a dog come sniff your house, you can actually rent them through some extermination companies to come and take a sniff. It’s expensive of course, and honestly, probably not worth the money if you have a good idea about where the bugs are hiding. Good luck to you and remember that calming yourself down is important because the bugs are not worth the toll stress takes on your health. Consider not googling bed bugs for a while and download a meditation app instead!

  • Sandee

    Sandee

    December 16th, 2016 at 4:11 AM

    Thanks Alexis – the update is, the house has been heat-treated, they’ll be back in two weeks to inspect and have given us a 3-month guarantee. Now that’s something to celebrate!
    And yes, I’m done googling!

  • Donald C.

    Donald C.

    February 7th, 2017 at 8:01 PM

    Have been dealing with Bedbugs in my Apt since late Nov 2016. Have had 3 fumigations and still not rid of them more than a year later. How do I get my life back and keep my Apt? Totally frustrated.2

  • Sandee

    Sandee

    February 8th, 2017 at 4:39 AM

    I feel your pain (and anxiety) Donald C. After 9 months, we are in the home stretch – it’s been unbelievable the steps we’ve had to go through to get rid of them! Here’s what we’ve done:
    1. Had our house heat treated (140 degrees)
    2. Use these on every bed: pestcontrol.domyownpestcontrol.com/search?w=activeguard%20mattress%20liner
    3. Have these under every piece of furniture (2 under each bed) in our house… buy the bait too: domyownpestcontrol.com/sensci-volcano-bed-bug-detectors-p-14068.html
    I’d suggest asking your landlord to pay for the heat treatment – we paid $1500. Chances are, they either came from another apartment or they’ve moved there also from your place.
    Hope you can get them out soon!

  • JOPESTKIL

    JOPESTKIL

    July 1st, 2018 at 7:19 PM

    Bedbugs are ever unwanted in households. Bedbugs will infest readily and if not controlled in enough time, will continue to wreck havoc reaching high level infestation which may be complex to eliminate completely.
    Bedbugs! These insects invade homes and wreak havoc wherever they will intentionally attack. Effective bed bug control may seem impossible when it comes to a high level stubborn infestation, but there must be light at the end of the tunnel to eliminate these small, pesky pests.
    Bed bugs are tricky bugs. When they get into a home or business, they can get into hard to reach locations, not just your beds. These insects can dwell in outlets, wall voids, electronics, behind baseboards and anywhere close to resting and sleeping human sites. They can also be deep inside upholstered furniture or under rugs unsparingly. The trick to beating these hitch hiking, tricky bugs is understanding their habits and habitats.

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