It seems like everywhere we look, we see or hear a headline story about Ebola. Fears about it have spread throughout the U.S. In fact, anxiety over Ebola is much more contagious than the disease itself. Why is there such a widespread fear about Ebola, and what can we do about it? Let’s roll up our sleeves and take a look—no latex gloves required!

Assessing real threat

In a sense, there does need to be a healthy level of concern about Ebola. It can be a deadly disease, and certain parts of West Africa have been greatly affected by the recent outbreak. As of this writing, there were 13,703 suspected cases with 4,920 deaths and a mortality rate averaging around 50 percent in West Africa. However, it is important that our level of concern be proportionate to the level of threat.

Compared to West Africa, the U.S. has cleaner basic living conditions and access to better health care. Fortunately, Ebola is harder to contract than many other infectious diseases, such as the flu. As of this writing, there have been only four cases in the U.S., and not a single bystander in the U.S. has contracted Ebola or died from it. By comparison, each year around 30,000 Americans die from influenza, and a whopping 600,000 die from heart disease.

Historically, it’s not just Ebola that has caused widespread anxiety. In recent years we have witnessed nationwide fears over Y2K, swine flu, avian flu, SARS, and the West Nile virus just to name a few. Why do we keep succumbing to distorted levels of anxiety? For starters, humans are hard-wired to have what is known as a negativity bias. That is, we tend to pay more attention to negative events (or potentially negative events) than positive ones because it has a survival value. Paying close attention to threat helps us to avoid danger and thus continue to survive.

The media knows that we pay keen attention to negative events and capitalizes on our predisposition. That’s why we have the saying, “If it bleeds, it leads” with regard to the news. Unfortunately, our brains didn’t evolve to be able to distinguish information about real threats on our doorstep from remote threats that are thousands of miles away. Thus, the “panic button” in our brains often gets activated when it shouldn’t.

Exposing our children to such news stories, and to our own anxiety, tends to cause them unnecessary anxiety. Children can detect when we, as parents, are stressed or anxious. Researchers have found that high levels of parental stress have a significant negative impact on their children’s well-being. Thus, if we want our children to be less stressed and happier, it is critical that we manage our own levels of anxiety. In a spin on the Gandhi quote, “Be the change you want to see…in your children.”

Easing off the panic button

One of my favorite pieces of sage advice—often credited to Mark Twain—is, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” The great irony is that much of our suffering in life comes from anticipating that we might suffer.

With that in mind, here are several strategies that can help you and your family calm fears when the negativity bias kicks in:

Recognize the feelings of anxiety that do arise. Identifying negative feelings and acknowledging them is the necessary first step to taming them. The more quickly we become aware of the negative emotions that we are experiencing, the more promptly we can work to address them.

Assess the threat realistically. Educate yourself on the facts, not the hype. Frame the threat in terms comparative to everyday risks and rewards. We accept a certain amount of risk by simply living our lives.

Act your way into a different way of thinking. Find diversions to occupy your mind and attention. Our minds are drawn like a magnet to negative information—it’s almost impossible to continuously think our way out of anxiety. We must engage in activities with family and friends: go to work, exercise and live your life.

Avoid watching and listening to all the latest media stories about the threat. The media’s constant barrage of stories and minutiae tend to fan the flames of anxiety, leading us into the trap of trying to get more information, which simply fans the flames more.

There are certainly threats in this world to our safety and well-being. Thankfully, for most Americans, Ebola is not one of them. While we do need to identify and take action against legitimate threats, the irony is that being on constant high alert and dwelling upon perceived threats serves to create some of the very suffering that we are trying to avoid. Acknowledging this reality can, hopefully, help us quarantine our anxiety and enjoy the lives we have.


Dr. Mike Brooks is a licensed psychologist in Austin. He specializes in positive psychology and well-being, the needs of children and teens, effective parenting and the impact of technology on our daily lives.

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