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  • Dr. Shane Owens

Which is more deadly: Ebola or panic?

The following dialogue was recounted to me by a physician on the front lines of the Ebola "crisis":

Person: What if Ebola becomes airborne?

Doctor: While that would be very bad, it has never done that, is not currently airborne and none of the related viruses are airborne so there is no reason to suspect that will happen.

Person: But can you prove it won’t happen.

Doctor: No, because we cannot prove a negative.

Person: So you really don't know.

Doctor: No I do not. But, if you are willing to abandon all faith in the scientific method, there is not much I can actually attest to "knowing.”

While not trained in psychology or psychiatry, it happens that at this time and in this place—more than 4,500 miles from the source of the US cases of Ebola—this infectious disease specialist is on the front lines of anxiety treatment.

Which one is really killing us: Ebola or our anxiety about it?

Ebola—and to a lesser extent Enterovirus D 68—are the current embodiment of our worst fears. They have even managed to wipe out the images of beheadings conducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or the Levant … tomato/tomahto).

They sell ad space.

And the dread that they inspire makes us all a little less safe.

The truth is that neither of those things (nor ISIS for that matter) that really scare us. As the conversation above shows, what really and truly puts that pit in our stomachs—that seething mass of horrible, all-consuming fear—is the whole uncertainty of the thing.

Ever notice that your fear subsides once the monster comes out of the darkness and shows its face? Once we can categorize a thing, make it somewhat tangible, it becomes easier to confront. Until then, we have the heebie-jeebies.

In the piece “New Study: Ebola’s True Scale is a Mystery,” Melissa Pandika talks about the panic that has “swept the public faster than Ebola itself,” then goes on to add to that panic by saying, for all intents and purposes: nobody really knows just how bad this is going to get. According to Ms. Pandika, the mathematical models that have been developed for things like this don’t apply.

There you have it: we’re all going to die. In a matter of weeks, this place will look like the Georgia of The Walking Dead or the New York City of The Strain.

The World Health Organization estimates that 90 percent of the economic cost of an outbreak of any disease is due to “irrational and disorganized” efforts to avoid the spread of infection.

If you buy into the message that the media are propogating—both directly and indirectly, through the sheer volume of coverage—you will likely spend lots of time and money preparing for something that will not happen.

It is a natural inclination to try to control as much of the Universe as you can, especially when it comes to maximizing your happiness, health, and time on this plane of existence. As the threat of Ebola becomes more salient and concrete (and geographically closer), most people will spend more of their time and money on keeping themselves safe. They will do so without thinking critically about their actions. They will do so instead of living.

They will do so without having any appreciable effect on their chances of avoiding infection.

The truth is this: most of us are not significantly more likely to become infected with Ebola than we were before the media decided to make it their favorite chew toy. Even you, New Yorkers, are not at increased risk. Believing that you are is akin to believing that you are more likely to die in a car accident in the days after you hear about one on the news.

Here are some simple things that you can do to make yourself both safer and less anxious:

Turn off the news.

If you find yourself becoming anxious, watch something else. Check back once or twice a day to keep yourself updated, but quit watching the endless parade of talking heads and B-roll of pictures of the infected and people in level 3 containment gear.

Get the facts.

Despite the political turmoil of late over the handling of this and other crises, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has up-to-date, straightforward fact sheets on Ebola and other conditions.

In addition, the American Psychological Association has information on handling the stress and anxiety that are likely to occur when faced with “crises” such as Ebola.

Please keep in mind that the representatives (including physicians) from governmental agencies that you see on television are not the ones who are actually caring for those with the disease or those who are at-risk. Their job is political. While well-meaning, they are not the most reliable sources of unbiased information.

Consider the real odds.

The chances of the public being exposed to Ebola are tremendously low. You are much more likely to die of the flu or heart disease or to develop diabetes than you are to be exposed to this scourge, and you are much less likely to die from it.

Behave accordingly.

Few of you reading this are in imminent danger of infection. Whatever you were going to do today, go do it. Spend some time with your family. Go to the mall or to the movies and don’t be afraid of every cough or sneeze.

Unless, of course, the CDC shows up at your door. Then you might be in some trouble.

A sense of humor might be your best protection against the fear and trembling that the media want from you.

This is not what some of us remember from that movie with Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey, or that one that Steven Soderbergh did. Though it could become that if people spend more time trying to avoid it and politicking rather than living their lives in healthy and well-adjusted ways.

If we do that, it will not be long before we find some new thing that goes bump in the night to keep us up, worrying about ourselves and our loved ones. The zombie thing is almost done. Vampires won’t last long. Probably about time for aliens again. Or artificial intelligence.

Whatever it is, we will handle it if we change our minds and behaviors just a little.

For more on the psychological bases for your irrational fears of Ebola, see this piece by Dr. Robert Leahy.

As always, anyone interested in more on this or other topics, please contact Dr. Owens using this link.

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