Manufacturing High Anxiety

Part of the problem lies in our brains, specifically the amygdala – the central station for processing emotions like fear, hate, love, and bravery. Once it detects a threatening situation, it pours out stress hormones. But if the stress persists too long, it can malfunction, overwhelm the hippocampus (the center of our "thinking" brain), and be difficult to turn off.

Most animals tend to react only to real, direct threats. In humans, however, chronic fear can be triggered by words and symbols – the perception of danger that may stem from hype, fragmented information, uncertainty, or misunderstanding.

Siegel’s book attacks the situation in three parts. First, he looks at how our "fear biology" can wear us down rather than protect us, inducing paralysis and even making us susceptible to diseases that we might otherwise resist. He also links the reaction to the current "war on terror," charging government, media, and drug companies with encouraging people to be unreasonably afraid.

The media’s obsession with the bug du jour – the scare of the moment – can lead to misinformation and divert attention from real dangers. Malaria and AIDS kill millions every year, but receive relatively little publicity, Siegel notes. Meanwhile, public health resources are transferred to the latest potential threat. The public is urged to obsess over bacterial and viral warfare, and yet there is no training for radiation poisoning, the Coast Guard is understaffed, and seaports are mostly undefended.

As a strategy for making money, fear-inducing propaganda can be tracked back to the early 1980s, when pharmaceutical companies began advertising heavily to convince us that their drugs were essential to good health. Siegel tells the story of Ira Lassiter, a popular journalist whose arthritis made him eager for the latest cure. By the 1990s, he was persuaded by a TV ad to switch from Motrin to Vioxx. Before that was taken off the shelves, another ad – this one by a competitor seeking to discredit Vioxx – convinced him to try Celebrex. Then tests showed that prolonged use of that drug was linked to heart disease. "The pendulum swung from panacea to panic, and drugs that were misperceived as lifesavers instantly became villains," Siegel writes.

Lassiter became a self-proclaimed arthritis drug addict, but what finally gave him relief wasn’t anything in Siegel’s supply closet. To deal with a cold, he took aspirin and discovered that it also worked for his sore hips.

Siegel calls aspirin the "antifear drug," mainly because it is highly useful without being misperceived as a panacea. The Greeks found it in the bark of the willow tree. Centuries later, a chemist isolated Sodium salicylate and, in 1897, Bayer employee Felix Hoffman found that acetylsalicylic acid could be effective in reducing pain.

But even aspirin can’t counteract the "universal fear epidemic" that Siegel describes in part two. Beginning with the anthrax scare that followed the 9/11 attacks, he illustrates how government and media have repeatedly colluded to convince us to fear something "that didn’t truly threaten us. Then, once we were worried, we saw that our federal agencies weren’t functioning effectively, which worried us further."

This section of the book is filled with startling anecdotes and corrective information. During the West Nile virus scare, for example, the possibility was raised that the U.S. blood supply wasn’t safe. Siegel explains that "blood supply" is a misnomer, since it suggests that a bug can move from one donor into all our transfused blood. The rule is "one donor, one recipient, with no large-scale pooling of transfused blood."

In 2003, when the focus was on chemical weapons and a possible Iraqi nuclear attack (a hype in itself), scam companies pushed potassium iodide pills, claiming that they would prevent thyroid cancer. But a thyroid filled with potassium iodide won’t protect the heart, lungs, and bone marrow, so such pills are like "going out into a snowstorm wearing only a scarf."

Various chapters look at the misinformation (and actual risks) associated with public health alerts over the past four years, including anthrax, smallpox, SARS, influenza, Mad Cow disease, and avian flu. In the process, Siegel charges that the government can sometimes be a greater danger than the supposed threat, mishandling the evidence and building high-security labs that provide an opportunity for home-grown fanatics to gain access to human pathogens. In 2001, a study found that most germ attacks were conducted by former or current researchers.

In part three, Siegel looks at ways to heal fear. Basically, this involves countering false beliefs. For some, faith or religion can help, he admits, but quickly adds that "religion has become overloaded with today’s obsessive worry." Another approach is simply to turn off the TV. Still another – not one he recommends – is the possibility of a new drug that blunts fear memories.

But the main advice is reeducation that puts risks in a more realistic perspective. That means less focus on the unlikely, less exaggeration of potential impacts and, with the help of people who have real knowledge, a psychological purge of the "high-pressure misinformation that is being shot into our brains."

Some of his suggestions sound like simple common sense. Get regular sleep, meals, exercise, and entertainment. If you’re worried about the flu, wash your hands more often and isolate those who have it. Ignore and resist those who push the wrong danger and then worry us more by bungling the response. Replace unreal fears with real courage.

To that list, you might add maintaining a sense of humor. Two years ago, in the midst of the SARS scare, I posted a notice in my house calling for entries to a list of "101 things to be afraid of." As the responses accumulated, we found that the sheer number and diversity tended to make each one look less threatening. From asbestos, mosquitoes, and dengue fever we moved on to losing your keys, barcodes, drunk drivers, being impaled, Tammy Faye Baker, and indifference. Everyone is afraid of something, but laughter sometimes helps to trip the amygdala’s off switch.

Overcoming fear is easier said than done, of course, especially when leaders, experts, and businesses feel the need to engage our instinctual apparatus for their own purposes. But if the home truths and myth-busting information in Siegel’s book reach enough people, they could be part of the antidote for this media-induced epidemic. The first step is to realize we have been conned and learn how to realistically assess risks. After that, Siegel concludes, "Each step away from false worry is a step toward true health."

Greg Guma is co-editor of Vermont Guardian and the author of Uneasy Empire, Inquisitions (and Other Un-American Activities), and Spirits of Desire. This article appears in the Oct. 14 edition of Vermont Guardian.

Panic attacks: a chronology

October 2001 – NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw receives an anthrax-laden envelope, sparking a nationwide scare and setting the stage for panic about subsequent bugs du jour.

August 2002 – News media warn about a possible West Nile virus epidemic. In the end, only 600 cases are reported, with 31 deaths.

October 2002 – Rumors about smallpox virus stockpiles stir anxiety about a shortage of smallpox vaccine. Subsequent smallpox preparedness costs billions.

February 2003 – The new national terror alert system is elevated to orange for the first time. Fearing a chemical weapon attack, people rush to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting.

April 2003 – SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) leads to global panic, massive quarantines, travel advisories, and economic losses. In the United States, only 33 probable cases are identified and no one dies.

Early December 2003 – Flu cases are reported in all 50 states, drawing attention to an illness that has actual potential to become an epidemic.

Dec. 14, 2003 – The capture of Saddam Hussein preempts additional coverage of the flu.

Late December 2003 – Mad Cow disease hysteria takes hold. Supermarkets remove meat from their shelves, Tyson and McDonald’s stock prices plummet.

January 2004 – The New York Times and Wall Street Journal take the lead in warning of a possible avian flu epidemic. As a precaution, more than 100 million animals are slaughtered.

October 2004 – A shortage of flu vaccine sparks a national panic. The first victim is an elderly woman who falls while waiting in line for her shot.