Ebola Fears: Are You Thinking or Are You Over-Thinking?

Ebola VirusDuring a season where fear plays a major role, a time when the demons are exorcised on All Hallows’ Eve, there’s some spooky stuff creeping up around the country. It’s not fear of drivers who text or fear of heart disease—it’s fear of the Ebola virus. It’s on television, it’s in the papers, it’s on the web. There are updates all day long about the latest case, the latest breakdown in security, the latest reason Ebola may find YOU.

That these fears are mostly irrational is not being heard. Quick Google searches can quickly show just how unlikely you are to contract the virus. If just taking a breath after reading the statistics doesn’t help, there are sites that discuss prevention. I don’t have all the facts, but what needs to be discussed is just what breeds this fear in people.

Fear is one of those emotions some people like to call “negative.” I’m not against this, as it’s not an emotion I ever really look forward to having. Sure, fear can be helpful. It can let us know that we need to be careful, and it can keep us from taking too many risks. Sadly, those of us who take big risks are usually the ones whose fear meter is too low, and those of us who rarely take risks often see fear where there’s none to be found (sounds like anxiety, yes, as they go together quite often).

If we can be aware of our fear so that it becomes a tool and not a detriment, fear can be adaptive and helpful. Unfortunately, one of the things fear excels at is stopping us from thinking. Without getting into the brain science, let’s just say that in the fight, flight, or freeze response to a fearful stimulus, the most helpful reaction gets shut down.

Ebola is not that person on the subway who just threw a soda can at you. This actually happened to me a few months ago. I instinctively got up, moved toward part of the car with more people, and then moved to the next car. Only then did I take stock and think about what to do. Only then did I reflect on my actions—was that the smartest way to respond? Could I have ignored it? Could I have engaged her in conversation? Could I have confronted her? There was no time. My fear worked well, meaning: I’m safe.

Ebola is different. Ebola is allowing us time to think. If we sit with our fear—sit with it in a mindful way, not in an obsessive way that just feeds the fear—we can learn from it. Is it bringing up past fears? When I sit with current fears, I’m often transported back to when I was temping in the financial district of New York City on the morning of 9/11; the sense of powerlessness was overwhelming, I knew little about what was happening, and I felt there was no decision I could make that would be sure to keep me safe. I think back to the fears of the unknown when I graduated college and had my bachelor of music with no work prospects. I think back to being left home alone by my parents for the first time.

No, the idea is not to ignore this virus altogether; nor is it to deny your feelings. It is to sit with the feeling and find its seeds. Personally, I’m making some different choices—not consuming as much media about Ebola, making sure I get a flu shot, asking medical people (just in case) if there’s something they know that I don’t.

These aren’t a cure for my fears, though, and that’s the point. The fear is in me. I can choose to feed it and make myself more miserable or I can choose to engage with it in a way that doesn’t stop me from thinking and doesn’t let my feelings run amok.

It’s almost Halloween, and that’s what haunted houses are for.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, Relationships and Marriage Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • therapydoc

    October 29th, 2014 at 8:06 AM

    That’s the strategy, stay with what’s real, not what’s possible. Then there’s the joke about New York ebola: If I can make it here. . .

  • JohnDavid

    October 29th, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    We are SOOO overreacting to all of this. I am surprised that the virus has not shown up on US soil sooner than now, but here we are with all of this craziness and it is something new, and most of us don’t know how to process something like this that we have imagined as being foreign and that didn’t live here.
    Well now it is and we have to be smart, not be irrational. I think that every health official out there working on this has a good mind for what is going on and they will do what needs to be done to keep everyone safe.
    Look at all of the other diseases that are out there running rampant, this one I think that the US has under control.

  • Jay

    October 29th, 2014 at 4:09 PM

    But I think that it is valid to be concerned and to at the very least expect that those who have been working in W Africa should be quarantined upon their return

  • Morgan

    October 30th, 2014 at 3:49 AM

    I try not to think about and worry about the things over which I have no control but I have to say that this is a scary one for all of us. I think that the reason that it’s so frightening is that we have gone so long without it showing up anywhere other than Africa and now all of a sudden it has jumped the ocean and we are having to deal with it. It always seemed like it was one of those things that affected others but not here at home, and now that we have had to encounter it, I think that makes it all the more frightening with everything else that is going on in the world today as well.

  • Kaye

    October 30th, 2014 at 12:04 PM

    I feel like I have to worry because I am not sure that the so called health professionals coming back form this area are worried about it at all!

    They are not worried about me and our health, so I guess I am going to have to do all of that for them.

    The ones breaking their quarantine which I thought was mandatory? are just being irresponsible and selfish if you ask me.

  • Martin

    October 30th, 2014 at 2:59 PM

    You have to keep all of this in perspective. There are fewer than a handful of people who have been diagnosed here. Aren’t there other bigger problems that we need to be worrying about right now?

  • sheila f.

    October 31st, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    Why is it that being a little afraid is seen as something so terrible and negative? I actually think that a little bit of fear is good for us, you know? It keeps us a little more rational than we would be without it. Now I am not saying you need to go all overboard and be afraid of everything little thing out there, but I think that if you are educated then that little bit of fear can help you make better choices than perhaps you would if there was absolutely no fear present at all.

  • Donald

    November 2nd, 2014 at 5:33 AM

    You got me thinking…. fear is not really a negative emotion. It’s helpful, a sign from my body to my brain, saying, “pay attention.” When I realize this I can sit with it, slow down, get some perspective, take wiser action. Thanks for this, Justin.

  • Bennett

    November 2nd, 2014 at 6:07 AM

    I don’t think that it is bad to be a little fearful of this as long as you don’t let that fear impact every single thing that you do. You can’t go around living just within your four wall and expect for life to be okay. There will always be those things which you can prevent and then there will be those things over which we have no control. This might be one of those cases, as long as we are prepared to handle the crisis if it does hit then i think that this is just about the best that we can do. This is not being down or negative, it is simply being realistic.

  • rondi

    November 3rd, 2014 at 4:50 AM

    I have done pretty well trying not to let my fears get the best of me but then I got up this morning and learned that there is a potential patient being treated in a hospital very close to where I live and that just threw me for a loop! What if I had some sort of contact with this person or the kids did? We have all tried to be rational and calm but then it hits closer to home than you prefer and all of that caution kind of goes out the window. If you are not scared of this then I would love to know what you are doing because honestly I am terrified.

  • Corrine

    November 3rd, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    MY guess is that most people are relying on emotion and not rationalism when it comes to most things in their lives that frighten them. The more that we worry the more we allow that fear to take us over and before you know it even the smallest things can frighten us. I understand both sides of the argument and I think that for any of us there will always be the fear of the unknown, but you can’t allow this to be all consuming because the more power that you give that fear then the less power that you give yourself to control it.

  • amber t

    November 4th, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    You can be safe and be smart without being extreme in your measures

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