ContagionThe possibility of a catastrophic incident, such as a pandemic, severe weather or a terrorist attack, creates unease for many people. Psychologists who study risk perception and people’s potential reactions to unpredictable threats say that people can prepare themselves psychologically and therefore feel more in control if such an event were to occur.

Psychology’s understanding of communications science — particularly how health and risk messaging should be done — will be particularly useful in light of the current outbreak of Ebola, not only out of concern for people in West Africa but because there are now cases being treated in the United States.

What the public needs to know

Q. What scares people the most about a threat from a natural disaster, contagious disease or terrorist attack? Are fear and anxiety a normal response?

A. Experts on public health and risk perception say that fear about catastrophic incidents often originates from a feeling of lack of control and a perceived inability to prevent the problem or threat. Some level of anxiety is constructive in that it motivates people to take appropriate action (assuming such actions are available and recommended). But without any recommended course of action, anxiety around these threats has the potential to become debilitating.

Psychologists who study people’s reactions to health, safety and environmental risks say fear is a normal response to an unpredictable threat. Anxiety is also a normal response to ambiguous situations over which one has little or no control. Anxiety about the future and fears of terrorism were quite normal after 9/11, and some people continue to feel anxious about the future.

Q. What can people do to lessen their anxiety about a health risk or environmental threat?

A. People can keep the actual degree of risk they are facing in its proper perspective and create a plan just in case. Psychologists who specialize in managing stress and anxiety say that people who feel some sense of control while dealing with a scary, unknown situation handle the unexpected better.

Q. How can parents communicate serious health threats to children?

A. According to developmental psychologists, parents should explain clearly what is known about the situation. They should present strategies for eliminating or preventing the feared situation. This should include education and discussion that increase a sense of feeling of control and knowing that actions will lead to certain results.

Child and adolescent experts also say that older children can help their younger siblings and peers feel less anxiety by reassuring them that they are not alone in the situation.

Psychologists who researched responses after 9/11 found that if parents were distressed about terrorism, they conveyed that information directly and indirectly to their children, which in turn raised the distress levels of their offspring. Adolescents’ distress following 9/11 was also associated with perceived parental unavailability to discuss the attacks, suggesting that a key to understanding parents’ influences on adolescents’ adjustment may lie in parents’ ability to manage their own distress and voice their concerns appropriately. Psychologists and other mental health professionals can play a role in helping parents manage their own distress and providing guidance on how best to respond to their children.

Q. When does a person’s fear over this kind of threat become a problem that may need treatment?

A. If a person is having trouble with daily functioning and regular routines, then a visit to a credentialed mental health care provider is advisable. A clinician will assess the duration of the problem and the array and severity of symptoms, etc. Anxiety about an ambiguous future is a natural and normal emotion, and mental health experts say that it is important not to pathologize normal responses to potentially traumatic experiences. But when such anxiety interferes with a person’s normal day-to-day functioning, that person should seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

There will not be one universal reaction to a catastrophic event. But it is important to recognize that an individual’s degree of emotional response will not necessarily be proportional to the degree of exposure, amount of loss or proximity to an illness. As noted above, mental health professionals can help individuals manage their own distress and provide guidance on how best to respond to their children.


Misinformation can create unnecessary fear