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From the Editor’s DeskWendy Priesnitz

Avoiding the Fear Virus

This Spring of 2003 was not a great one where I live. We had cooler than normal weather after a colder than normal winter, probably part of the changing climate cycles resulting from global warming. We had an outbreak of the mysterious virus SARS. We had an increased threat of West Nile Virus. We had renewed concerns about Mad Cow Disease. There was the threat of terrorism and the reality of war. Whew! Not quite Armageddon, but enough to have the most positive thinker feeling fearful.

But wait a minute. Has the recent weather really been cooler than normal or is that just a perception based on childhood memory? Is there still a substantial threat to the majority of people from terrorism? And how big is the threat of getting ill from a new virus or two, anyway, at least compared to other risks?

As the level-headed Dr. Julie Gerberding, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out, obesity and smoking are still the biggest causes of death in North America, all the new threats aside. (I would add air pollution to that list.) And since these are lifestyle issues about which we can each actually do something, why not take action rather than worrying about threats that are either contained in hospitals (like SARS in Canada), pose uncertain danger or are totally out of our control?

Why not, indeed. Because the perception of danger causes fear. And fear is more contagious than a disease. The adrenaline rush that accompanies fear is addictive and it crowds out reason. That’s why it is used to sell newspapers, wars, prescription drugs, pesticide spraying, weapons in outer space and political candidates. Tell people they are in danger and they will do what you want them to.

That doesn't have to be true. Although we do not have control over unexpected events, we have complete control of how we react to those events. There may not be a vaccine for these new viruses (yet!) or for terrorism, but we can do much to inoculate ourselves against fear and anxiety.

Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of the book The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things says we need to learn how to identify exaggerated or false fears (and rumors) from legitimate dangers. And the best way to do that is through education and critical thinking. For instance, reading from a variety of media provides a broader perspective on the world.

Better still, we can also lower our exposure to the media. Who really needs a newscast every 15 minutes, instant news flashes on their computer screen or phone, hours each day passing gossip on social media, or a full evening’s worth of talking television heads? All of that packaged paranoia is not going to make us more intelligent or even more informed. But it will make us fearful. And fear never solved anything.

Taking positive action is another antidote for fear, whether it’s doing real activism, learning to meditate, or joining a community organization and taking part in a real dialogue about how to make positive change in society.
Wendy Priesnitz

Wendy Priesnitz, Editor



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