Gaining control over the fear factor

Accepting what can and can’t be done

The spread of anthrax through the mail brought a lot of media attention and with that a barrage of questions about bioterrorism. As a result, both health care workers and consumers alike are feeling anxious. Many find it difficult to get back to a normal routine. Therefore, it’s important that people obtain the skills they need to return to normalcy. How does a person gain control of fear?

"People don’t have control over a fearful thought that just pops into their mind but they can develop control over how long that thought stays there," says Linda Sapadin, PhD, a psychologist in Valley Stream, NY, and expert on overcoming fear. One way to become calm is to understand what it is that can and can’t be done about the situation, she says.

People need to know that when something is disturbing on the news, it is important not to exaggerate it by allowing their minds to picture the worse scenario but rather to shift from the unnerving thought to what is promising, says Sapadin. For example, acknowledging that the risk of contracting anthrax is much smaller than the risk of getting the flu and even dying from it.

Can facts about biological agents such as anthrax help people put things in perspective? That depends, says Sapadin. In today’s society there is an overabundance of data and what is needed as useful information. "It’s important to strike a balance between living your life, functioning effectively, and letting the fear take over," she says. When fear overcomes people, they need to settle their body and mind and ask if there is anything they need to do at that moment.

An invisible, unpredictable, and uncontrollable threat such as anthrax makes people feel helpless which contributes to their fear, says Linda L. Carli, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley (MA) College. Sometimes it helps if people gain a sense of control over the situation by taking some action. This might include putting together a plan for an emergency evacuation from their neighborhood by stocking such essentials as bottled water.

It also helps to put the risk into perspective. "The odds of an individual’s mail being contaminated with anthrax are extremely remote. People need to look objectively at the situation. There are many more risky behaviors they engage in all the time, yet aren’t concerned about," says Carli.

Health care workers need to know the most recent data on anthrax and other biological agents, but the general public should know the means of transmission and the symptoms. Obsessively gaining lots of knowledge about biological agents is not helpful for most people, and thinking about such things all the time fuels anxiety, says Carli.

People who cannot sleep or concentrate on their work may want to seek professional help. In general both health care workers and the public need to continue their lives in a very normal manner. They also need to participate in activities they enjoy, says Carli.

Sources

For more information about overcoming fear and anxiety caused by the threat of a bioterrorist attack, contact:

  • Linda L. Carli, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, Department of Psychology, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Telephone: (781) 283-3351.
  • Linda Sapadin, PhD, Psychologist, Valley Stream, NY. Telephone: (516) 791-2780.