There is a little-known psychological disorder called “Ekbom syndrome” in which a person believes that insects are crawling underneath their skin. Patients often tear their skin off in an attempt to extract the invisible vermin.
Even though it’s a rare disorder affecting about 100,000 Americans, somehow we can all relate to the maddening anxiety of those afflicted. There is something universally cringe-worthy about the experience of infestation.
I was reminded of this during the Ebola scare that swept the nation over the past few months. Though the virus posed little immediate threat to the American public, the collective reaction was just short of total hysteria. Fortunately, levelheaded individuals eventually took to the airwaves and social media sites begging for calm, reminding us of the astronomically low chances of ever dying from an Ebola outbreak. “Given the facts,” they implored, “you needn’t be scared.”
The problem is, however, we can’t help it. Infestation anxiety — the fear that foreign invaders are overrunning us, be they wormlike viruses or Islamic insurgents — is part of our collective psychology.
The word “infestation” is an interesting one; it has roots in the Latin word festus, meaning “(able to be) seized.” Adding the prefix in– (meaning “not”) evokes the anxiety of not being able to grab something that threatens us — swarms of insects crawling through the floorboards, terrorists skittering through our borders, North Korean malware programs infiltrating our computer systems.
In fact, infestation anxiety has evolutionary roots. It can be explained in part by “disgust sensitivity,” our innate aversion to things that spread illness and disease. But infestation anxiety can also be traced to an unlikely source: the Object Relations school of psychology. Object Relations theory posits that when a child has inadequate relationships with his or her primary caregivers, the child often carries negative mental images (known as “internal objects”) of the caregivers into adulthood, which often lead to patterns of social impairment or psychological distress.
In his book Thoughts Without a Thinker, psychiatrist Dr. Mark Epstein laments: “Dependent as we are on the nuclear family, on the attentions of, at best, two overcommitted parents … our culture tends to foster the internalization of whatever absence was initially present.”
Thus, Epstein explains, if one’s relationship with one or both parents was deficient in some way, “there remains in that individual a gnawing sense of emptiness, a flaw that the person perceives as lying within himself or herself.” Consequently, we carry with us a lingering feeling of mistrust and vulnerability that we project out into the world. We agonize that the mechanisms designed to protect us — family systems, immune systems, government systems, military systems — are not up to the task. We fret that we are under siege and are powerless to stop the incursion.
I am not suggesting that all national threats are a product of our collective imagination: that would be irresponsible and naive. ISIS might carry out a terror attack on our soil. North Korean hackers may very well sabotage the release of another Seth Rogen feature. I am suggesting, however, that no impregnable firewall, no bolstered immune system, and no hawkish foreign policy will ever stop our constant fretting about where the next threat might come from, because the real menace may lie within us.