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. Continue reading