Feeling panicky about pandemics? Here’s how to ease your worry while taking practical steps to stay safe.
In recent years, “the flu” has morphed from a routine malady into an international threat, with the arrival of potent, scary strains like Asian bird flu and H1N1. The news is full of sound bites about potential apocalyptic pandemics that experts suggest could kill millions — while people fret over just how to protect themselves from invisible contagions. William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, points out that the best way to protect ourselves from the flu isn’t to panic and shun human contact, or obsessively scrub down and sanitize our entire environment, but rather to understand how the bug is transmitted and how to turn a few simple preventive measures into habits.
Stress Source: Influenza Anxiety
Fear of contracting new and potentially deadly strains of influenza, which are widely publicized in the media and not particularly well understood by most people — leaving many of us unsure of how to take protective measures.
- Crisis-prone media coverage. “Television, by its very nature, tends to hype things,” says Schaffner. “Influenza is a serious disease, but scare headlines don’t convey the information you really need to protect yourself.”
- Indiscriminate Web surfing. It’s better to get your infectious-disease information from one or two reliable sources rather than to scour the Internet, with its motley mix of information, misinformation and raw emotion. “Carefully reading reliable, unsensational sources of information on the flu is a big help,” Schaffner says.
- The tendency to isolate. Schaffner warns against “becoming so flu-phobic that you curtail too many of your social contacts.” Staying home alone with flu fears will simply compound your anxiety with isolation and will make you more, not less, fearful.
- Substituting “crisis measures” for good health maintenance. Flu shots, says Schaffner, shouldn’t be seen as a “magic bullet” that makes good general health maintenance — sufficient sleep, good nutrition, regular exercise — unnecessary.
- Picturing the worst. Assuming that getting the flu means certain death is both unrealistic and crazy-making.
How to Cope
- Know the facts. “Influenza is transmitted through the air between people who are within 3 feet of each other,” says Schaffner. “It also can be transmitted if you touch someone who has it, and you then touch your mucous membranes — nose, mouth or eyes.”
- Wash up frequently. Carry a hand-hygiene product like a package of moist wipes in your purse or car and wash your hands frequently throughout the day.
- Shake hands less frequently. “There’s a lot of social support for this these days,” says Schaffner. “Why not simply try a nod or a bow?”
- Have a regular exercise program. There’s convincing evidence that exercise boosts your immune system. If you come down with cold or mild flu symptoms, it may be better to engage in mild exercise than to go to bed.
- Pick reliable news sources and dig deep. “The print media — major newspapers and newsmagazines — have done a pretty good job of looking at the entire picture of influenza realistically,” says Schaffner. “But you have to read the whole article and not just the headlines” to understand the larger issues (animal containment and antibiotic practices, global travel, etc.). Schaffner also recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web coverage of flu issues (www.cdc.gov) as authoritative, timely and responsible.
- Remember that most flu sufferers recover. Many people have been infected with the flu, but most who became seriously debilitated or died had underlying health problems and compromised immunity.
Stress Solver: Morita Therapy
Why put off what you can do today? Morita Therapy can help you get motivated to make healthy, productive changes — now.
One of the most stressful daily problems is procrastination. For example, we may understand that regular exercise is crucial for health and immunity, but we resist going to the gym for all kinds of reasons — we don’t like to get sweaty, we’re going to feel fat, we don’t have the time. Morita Therapy is a simple and effective way to “feel the resistance and do it anyway,” says Gregg Krech, executive director of the ToDo Institute in Monkton, Vt., and an authority on the method, which he calls “a great antidote to the stress of not getting things done.”
Origin: The method was developed in the 1930s by Shoma Morita, MD, head of psychiatry at a Tokyo medical school. Originally an anxiety treatment, Morita Therapy’s scope has broadened over the years, but it continues to emphasize acceptance of whatever emotions we feel with no effort to change them, while we take action on our external problems — in essence, says Krech, “to feel the fear and do it anyway” — which, in turn, can help us decrease our general anxiety level.
Benefits: “Putting off something you know you need to do is a pretty good formula for maximizing your suffering,” says Krech. “Morita Therapy teaches you how to do the things you need to do, when you need to do them, instead of when you feel like doing them. That’s a simple, profound way to lessen stress and suffering — but mainstream therapy almost never addresses it.” The results can include improved relationships, work performance and self-esteem, as well as a lower anxiety level.
Simple Steps: “The first step is knowing what you most need to do,” says Krech. “This is usually clear. Ninety percent of the people I see know what they need to do but are simply not doing it. It’s usually a task that is both urgent and important.” Instead of doing the necessary task, he adds, they fill up their time with tasks that are urgent but less important, or those they feel more comfortable doing.
The Morita therapist helps individuals acknowledge and accept their negative feelings about the main task, and the thoughts they provoke are accepted exactly as they are, in the moment. “And then comes the third stage, co-existing with the feelings,” says Krech. “It’s being able to call the IRS or the bill collector while still feeling the dread. This is an actual skill the therapist helps you develop, like driving a car. The more you do it, the better you get at it.” The doing, Krech says, almost immediately lessens the dread — usually well before the long-procrastinated task is completed. For more on Morita Therapy, see “Facing the Demons of Inaction” in the January/February 2004 archives.