fear

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How Trauma Brings Fear, Yes, But Also More Nuanced Reactions

A woman breaks down while paying her respects at a makeshift memorial near the Inland Regional Center Friday in San Bernardino, California, where several people were shot and killed by two shooters on Dec. 2. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

A woman breaks down while paying her respects at a makeshift memorial near the Inland Regional Center Friday in San Bernardino, California, where several people were shot and killed by two shooters on Dec. 2. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

By Mary C. Zeng, MD
Guest Contributor

November and December have been months of trauma.

The Paris terror attacks and the American shootings in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs have taken a heavy toll on both survivors and witnesses. Media coverage depicting scene after scene of carnage has also generated painful and lingering emotional reactions by secondhand exposure. A recent New York Times article describes “a creeping fear of being caught in a mass rampage has unmistakably settled itself firmly in the American consciousness.”

It’s true that trauma breeds fear. Those who were directly victimized in the attacks are, of course, likely to develop both short- and long-term fear reactions. But even indirect victimization, such as through the media, can be psychologically damaging. One study of New Yorkers after Sept. 11 found that people who watched more news coverage were over three times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a hallmark disease of fear.

However, if we are to truly understand and appreciate each other’s emotions during these troubling times, we must talk beyond fear. Failure to do so would be a disservice to those who are suffering.

A variety of responses is expected, and normal, in the aftermath of trauma. Fear is only one of several emotions that may arise — one of a cluster of experiences collectively known as peri-traumatic distress. Other feelings in this cluster include helplessness, sadness, grief, guilt, shame, anger and horror. Certain cognitive responses, such as a worry about fainting or dying, are also common, as are physical sensations such as loss of bowel or bladder control and shaking, sweating or a racing heart.

Another common response immediately following a trauma is peri-traumatic dissociation: a state of disconnectedness from oneself or from reality, memory loss, reduced awareness or time distortion that is triggered by a traumatic event.

Both of these sets of responses are normal short-term reactions to trauma. They may be experienced with varying levels of intensity, depending on how directly or indirectly someone was exposed to the trauma. They are expected to phase out, or extinguish, for many people over a course of weeks after the traumatic event.

It is when these reactions do not extinguish that the long-term and potentially crippling effects of trauma begin to show in individuals with a genetic predisposition. Peri-traumatic responses then turn into PTSD, a psychiatric illness affecting 7-8 percent of all Americans over their lifetimes. The classic signs of PTSD, aside from exposure to a traumatic event, include intrusive memories of the event; avoidance of people, places and situations associated with the event; negative mood and cognitions; and hypervigilance and hyperarousal.

In the same way that a veteran who saw IEDs in Iraq now sees IEDs everywhere, the mass shooting survivor forgets how to feel safe even on the home front. The world turns into a permanently dangerous, uncontrollable place.

Besides peri-traumatic distress, peri-traumatic dissociation and PTSD, which are widely researched because they can lead to psychological disability down the line, a whole range of emotions is possible in light of the recent tragedies. Numbness, bewilderment, resignation — there is no one right way to react to trauma. Traumatized individuals are also at higher risk of developing psychiatric disorders other than PTSD, such as major depression and substance abuse.

But positive adaptations to trauma have also started to receive research attention. Continue reading

Outbreak Deja Vu: Rumor, Conspiracies, Folklore Link Disease Narratives

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

A licensed clinician participates in a CDC training course in Alabama earlier this month for treating Ebola patients. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

By Jon D. Lee
Guest Contributor

Nearly five years ago, during the peak of the H1N1 — swine flu — pandemic, a joke appeared on the Internet based on the nursery rhyme “This Little Piggy.”

The joke (clearly for public health insiders) was intended to comment on the similarities between swine flu and avian flu, and it concluded this way:

And this little piggy went “cough, sneeze” and the whole world’s media went mad over the imminent destruction of the human race, and every journalist found out that they didn’t have to do too much work if they just did “Find ‘bird’, replace with ‘swine’” on all their saved articles from a year ago, er, all the way home.

The punch line makes an important point about the recycling of stories. But for all of its insight into this phenomenon, the joke doesn’t end up taking the lesson far enough.

Because it’s not just the media that recycles stories — it’s all of us.

In “An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perceptions of Disease,” I conducted an extensive study of the narratives — the rumors, legends, conspiracy theories, bits of gossip, etc. — that circulated during the H1N1, SARS and AIDS pandemics.

The results showed that all three pandemics were rife with rumors that, though created decades apart, had striking similarities. Every disease had a story claiming a government conspiracy or cover-up. Every disease had a list of surefire cures and treatments “they” don’t want you to know about. Every disease had false and inaccurate stories about where it had spread to and who was infected. Continue reading

Curb Your Hysteria: Talking Rationally To Kids About Ebola Risk

A man diagnosed with Ebola this week is being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. (AP)

A man diagnosed with Ebola this week is being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. (AP)

By Gene Beresin, MD and Steve Schlozman, MD

On Sept. 30 the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the United States. The patient, who is currently being treated in Dallas, had recently traveled to Liberia, and was back in this country for a few days before symptoms began.

Understandably, the coverage of this news is pervasive. Although it seemed inevitable that a case in the U.S. would eventually emerge, the story still ignites a fair bit of hand-wringing among just about everyone who has learned of it.

Additionally, our country has experienced some novel infections that have ignited increased concerns in recent weeks. Enterovirus D-68 has made its way across the nation, causing severe cold-like symptoms, and, in some children with conditions such as asthma, the need for hospitalization. There’s also a potentially new contagion on the horizon that appears to cause varying degrees of muscular paralysis, and may or may not be related to Enterovirus D-68.

But, as public health officials are eager to stress, a nuanced and thoughtful approach to these issues has been as necessary as it has been fleeting. Experts agree that our medical infrastructure is well-equipped to handle even a virus as scary as Ebola, and some doctors are quick to point out that viruses like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza are much more likely to cause harm than these new ones.

This raises a critical point:

Ebola, as scary as it is, poses a relatively minor threat to the United States; and the current cases of Enterovirus D-68 are far out-numbered by the RSV and influenza cases we experience on a yearly basis. And the currently unknown contagion that appears to cause paralysis has only happened in a very small population of kids.

So why the massive reaction in the media and among worried parents? Intellectually, at least at this point, all indications point to little danger for our children and ourselves. Why, then, do we get so frightened?

Well, let’s start with this confession: We’re frightened.

Sort of.

We know, intellectually, that the threat is minor. But, when has intellect played a leading role in the emotionally driven process of threat assessment? And, especially with regard to infectious disease, when has anyone other than the most statistically driven scientists been able to preserve perspective? We’re not saying that we should massively worry, or even that we’ll be changing our instructions to our kids or our patients on how to behave with these new bugs dancing around.

What we’re saying is that germs, especially new germs, are scary. We have a long and probably evolutionarily derived tendency to fear disease, and when new ones rear their heads, we get alarmed.

Germs In Hollywood

As a society, we think about germs a lot — and nowhere, perhaps, does that play out more than in Hollywood. The 1954 novella “I am Legend” has been made into no less than three movies (“The Last Man on Earth,” “The Omega Man” and the more recent movie of the same title as the written work). You can rattle off other movies as well — there’s “Dawn of the Dead” (in 1978 and again in 2004), “Outbreak,” “Carriers,” “Contagion,” “The Crazies” (in 1973 and again in 2010),

“Quarantine” (and “Quarantine 2”) and most recently “World War Z.” You get the picture. Continue reading