CINCINNATI — In 2004, Michelle Dillingham was a young caseworker serving people with severe mental illnesses. During that spring 17 years ago, Dillingham had a severe anxiety attack of her own while doing home visits in Cincinnati neighborhoods.
“And I remember when this happened,” Dillingham said. “I'm in my car and literally having to call my clients and say, ‘I am too afraid to get out of my car; you're going to have to come to my car to meet with me today,’ and feeling an extreme anxiety response.”
The extreme anxiety was brought on by the Brood X cicadas, those same cicadas that will be emerging mid-May in the Tri-State region.
“I remember thinking I don't have severe mental illness myself,” Dillingham said. “This is what severe anxiety feels like. I could totally at that moment empathize with my clients who had severe anxiety.”
What Dillingham experienced is real, and she is not alone. And don’t try to tell her, “It’s just bugs.”
“Reasoning with me, telling me that they won't bite me, that actually doesn't help.” Dillingham said. “But what does help is I'm feeling supported with other people who share my fear and feeling I'm not alone, it's not going to last forever, there's coping strategies out there.”
Dillingham created a community to share her feelings and connect with other people who have anxiety about cicadas. She started a Facebook group called “Cincinnati Cicada-Phobia Safe Space.”
Anyone can join, but there’s just one important rule: No posting pictures of the bugs.
"It's just for people who are legitimately afraid of cicadas either because they experienced it in the past and, you know, didn't have a very good experience, or maybe for people who just moved here or have never experienced it and are a little nervous or worried about what this means and what it will be like,” Dillinghman said.
Members of the group also discuss coping strategies and protective gear like hats and other types of clothing to keep the cicadas off their heads and necks.
These and other coping strategies are vital, because some people may feel too anxious to even leave their houses, said Patty Banks, supervisor for the employee assistance program at TriHealth.
“So there are some people that, yep, just have a little bit of anxiety, and I will count myself as one of those people," said Banks. "It’s not my favorite thing, but, OK, I can manage it, to people who don’t leave their home and they struggle."
TriHealth offers a list of tips and resources for people specifically dealing with cicada anxiety. Banks also points out even people without an extreme phobia may find the sheer amount of bugs and the noise distressing.
“It's a very unusual -- and fairly amazing in some ways -- event that happens in our area, and we have these cicadas that come out and they emerge in such a large number that I think that that's where people tend to get into issues,” she said. “I think between the noise and just kind of the size of the bugs, it really can make some people fairly anxious.”
Deep-breathing techniques, recognizing that some level of anxiety is normal and trying to keep doing day-to-day activities are all key coping strategies, according to TriHealth’s guide.
“Get yourself into a place where you're mentally ready.” Banks said. “Remind yourself, I can handle this, I can do this. I can swat them away when they come at me, you know, and I'll just make it to my car or wherever I'm going."
For Dillingham and her Facebook group, that’s a little advice that goes a long way. She said she knows she may be dealing with the cicadas for a number of weeks.
"They are coming; we're going to have to be living with these things for a while," she said. “So what can we do to help each other figure out how to cope with them?"
There are also resources for parents to help kids cope with fears. “Cicada Safari,” a mobile app with info on cicadas and Brood X, provides activities for kids including a suggestion to interview grandparents about their experiences with cicadas.
Banks encourages anyone who needs help with anxiety to seek professional help or reach out through their company’s employee-assistance program if available. The TriHealth employee-assistance program can be reached at 513-891-1627.