Let's face it, Ebola is scary. My kids are scared. The moms at school are talking about giving their children extra multi-vitamins to boost their immune systems in a desperate attempt to do something, anything, to protect their families. But we live in Boston and there are no cases here — yet. Still, that "yet" can make us crazy.
So, in a crisis, who do you call for comfort? The level-headed risk perception consultant: David Ropeik, who spoke with me briefly today about why such intense, prolonged worry and anxiety can backfire, make your body weaker and perhaps even damage your health:
Here, edited, is our short interview:
RZ: So, why is being scared of Ebola bad for your health?
DR: The health ramifications of this are profound. When we worry, that, biologically, is stress — that's a mini fight-or-flight response going on in the body. When stress persists for more than several days (short-term stress is not the problems), it becomes damaging to our health. Chronic stress raises our blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems; it suppresses our immune system and makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases or get sicker from them if we do. It interferes with neurotransmitters associated with mood, and it is strongly associated with clinical depression. Chronic stress interferes with digestion and memory and depresses fertility and bone growth (slows it down).
[The negative effects of chronic stress are widely reported, but Ropeik cites the book "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," by the biologist Robert Sapolsky, as a key source here.]
So you think people are overreacting and we're moving into some kind of widespread nation-wide chronic stress phenomenon here?
We're on the cusp. It's like what the fear of SARS did to people in Canada — it freaked [them] out for weeks: "Here it comes again," is what they're saying.
How do you see all this evolving?
In the last day and a half the criticism of how health officials have handled things and the mistakes they made in Dallas, real as those mistakes are, have become a focus, and it's now starting to undermine trust in our health care system.
In a crisis, trust is the pivotal factor for how worried people are.
All of the other factors about Ebola that make it scarier — that it's new and exotic, that it kills in a horrific way, that awareness is high...which makes any risk scenario scarier -- that’s all secondary to the poisoning of trust in the people who are supposed to protect us.
America is at a very critical juncture: the critics making so much of the little flaws in how things have been handled are poisoning trust. We are within days of an epidemic of fear, not just in what people say and how afraid people say they are but how they behave. In Cleveland, schools are closing and they're being washed down in bleach; people are going to airports wrapped in plastic and duct tape.
Significantly, this isn't about te disease itself, it's about how much we trust the people who are supposed to protect us. The problems that have happened in how cases in Dallas were handled in no way make the actual risk to the public greater.
For people who have already experienced an extremely rare event — I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on 9/11 and saw the second plane hit, for instance, and now I hate flying even more — why does the rational knowledge about actual risk get so thoroughly eclipsed by fear?
We remember scary stuff more than we remember meaningless stuff. Our brain knows to do that to avoid having the scary stuff happen again, or to protect us if we’re in that situation again. So when the memory comes screaming up to consciousness loudly and fast, the brain somehow knows to give that memory extra weight in how afraid we are. And it doesn't have to be the exact same scary event, it simply needs to be similar...Again, in Canada, after SARS, the feeling is "Here we go again" even though they didn't have Ebola, they just had the experience.
So, what's the bottom line here?
There are plenty of reasons to mistrust the health care system — pharmaceutical companies, for instance — but in this case, the risk of the flaws that have been made actually contributing to widespread transmission of Ebola is nonsense. These mistakes won't do that. The risk of this disease being a widespread epidemic is practically as zero as you can get, because of the way it transmits.
Unless you rub your skin on bad fluid you can't get this disease. Just remind yourself how this spreads — the virus doesn't know about your fear, it's looking to get into you, to jump from infected fluid from a sick person (not their breath) into a hole in your skin. If you just keep telling yourself that, you won't be that freaked out. Alert, aware is fine, but within reason. There's a way to protect yourself from fear — just learn the basic facts, and protect your health. And remember, that worrying too much can be bad for your health too.