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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Keeping Safe

Handling new kind of stress

By Patricia Wen, Globe Staff, 11/4/2001


How genuine is the risk?
Taking practical steps
Staying safe on the job
Handling new kind of stress
Talking with children
Is it just the flu?
What to do when in doubt
Hospital readiness
How the body fights back
Are there other threats?
Not all terror threats equal

How to talk to your kids
5 signs you need help
What works, what doesn't
How anthrax is diagnosed
Inside a bacterial invasion
In case of emergency...
Identifying a mail threat
Safety resources

Compare cold & flu to other bioterror threats:
Cold & Flu
Hemorrhagic Fever

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More anthrax coverage

Homeland security chief Tom Ridge called for a new ''national psychology'' last week, and most Americans intuitively knew just what he meant.

It's a new mental state in which Americans cheerfully gave away Halloween candy on the same day they heard about yet another anthrax death. It's when they go on with their real life amid real fears. It's when they try to distinguish between coping and moping.

This balancing act can't possibly be alien to anyone who has faced a life-threatening disease yet dressed for work the next day. Or had a child with a chronic illness. And it certainly isn't new to many people in the world who have faced war and devastation on their soil daily for years.

But Americans have not entered this psychological state together as a nation in decades - and finding the right emotional niche isn't easy.

Just how do Americans, hit with 'round-the-clock news flashes about terrorism threats and anthrax cases, keep their psyches in a healthy emotional balance?

Numerous psychologists and psychiatrists, as well as local hospital workers and law enforcement authorities in the front lines of the latest terrorist threats, offer their best advice on this question. The advice comes in the form of practical tips about how they achieve this balance:

• Limit how much news you take in. Some people are more relaxed and feel more in control if they get the latest developments at the 11 p.m. television news hour, then go to sleep. Others find that such late-night input keeps them awake and rattled.

Therapists say it's important for each person to know his or her personal temperament and when information overload hits. Some people may think they need to run on the news treadmill but would actually benefit if they got off. One suggestion: Cut off the Internet or TV news connection at 7 p.m.

''You want to get away from being in the hypnotic grip of the media,'' says Dr. Frederick Stoddard, past president of the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society and associate clinical professor at Harvard Medical School.

This strategy works for Kevin Babcock, 49, of Jamaica Plain. As an emergency room nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, he is always alert to possible anthrax exposures.

''It's easy to get saturated by the media,'' Babcock says. ''I limit my news to an hour a day.''

• Force yourself to socialize. Tempting as it is to lie on the sofa and watch television, psychologists say people should avoid isolating themselves during these times of heightened anxiety. That means structuring your weekend or time off to be with others you enjoy and planning ahead for activities.

Nudging yourself to be with others is also important around the holidays, even though to some people the artificial good cheer of that time can be annoying.

''You often need to push yourself slightly,'' says Sanford Portnoy, past president of the Massachusetts Psychological Association who has a clinical practice in Newton and Needham. ''Isolation with anxiety is not a good combination.''

But socializing can bring its own problems. Therapists caution against excessive discussion of terrorism to the exclusion of other topics. While talking about anthrax fears may have a therapeutic benefit, it may also exacerbate existing worries for you and others who are listening.

''You want to be able to talk about it to some degree but not get overwhelmed by it,'' says Lisa Najavits, director of trauma research at McLean Hospital in Belmont.

• Keep your intellect in charge. That can mean realizing that people never lived in a risk-free world at any time, and that people in the past came through grave dangers - from the medieval plagues to World War II. A State Police sergeant who responds to bomb threats and suspicious packages says he makes sure to remember that other threats - such as car accidents, crime, fires, and drowning - are far more likely to hurt him or his family than anthrax at this time.

''You try to control the things you can control,'' says Charles Hanko, who works in the office of the state fire marshal, echoing a sentiment shared by many therapists as well. ''But you can't worry about what you can't control.''

Hanko said he knows of little he or anyone else can do if someone is willing to kill himself by hijacking a plane into a building or has found some unusual way to get anthrax into the air. But Hanko knows he can control other things, such as warning his children about predators and road safety.

Edmund Neuhaus, a McLean Hospital psychologist who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders, talks about the importance of collecting accurate information to keep emotions in check. For example, his wife was suffering from the flu recently and had some concerns about anthrax. She worried that calling the doctor might be alarmist. She ended up calling and felt reassured she had nothing to worry about.

''Having the right information can really help,'' Neuhaus says.

• Be good to yourself. Therapists acknowledge this will mean different things to different people. For some, regular exercise routines reduce stress. For others, taking the time to cook a healthy gourmet meal may be helpful. Or maybe buying tickets to a concert or planning a vacation.

The important thing, says Neuhaus, is to try to assess just what relaxes you and what doesn't. For one person, exercising five mornings a week instead of four may be calming. For another, that extra morning might be better spent reading a book or having breakfast with a friend.

''Simplify your life,'' says Neuhaus.

The good news is that the overwhelming majority of Americans will probably navigate these emotional waters well with the help of family and community support. Trauma researchers emphasize the resilience of the human psyche. The overwhelming majority of people will adjust just fine over time - as they have in other societies and generations.

American therapists have never been ones to encourage people to ignore their feelings of anxiety, but some say there is a role for ''adaptive denial'' when alarming events seem chronic. It is something that humans have used for centuries to stay emotionally stable through the tough times.

Said Stoddard of the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society: ''We are not able to keep our fears on the forefront all the time.''

This story ran on page 5 of the Boston Sunday Globe's Common-sense Guide to Keeping Safe on 11/4/2001.
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