Preventing Panic from Concern About Ebola

By Karen Lynn Cassiday, Ph.D., ACT

If you have OCD, or tend to worry, then you probably already realize that ii is easy for these types of situations to make you believe that compulsions, avoidance and reassurance seeking are your friends, your allies against a terrible imagined future. The Ebola epidemic that faces West Africa can start to feel like your personal responsibility at home and in places where no public health official or non-anxious person would ever consider taking precautions. Several weeks ago, my husband was in the Houston airport and he told me that he saw passengers wearing protective facemasks, undoubtedly because they were travelling in a city that contained an isolation unit that held two Ebola patients. I have multiple patients wondering if they should cancel international travel plans to non-African countries and other patients who are ramping up their efforts to avoid touching public surfaces with bare hands or who have stated their intent to avoid parts of the city known to be frequented by African immigrants. I have also had one patient tell me that she intended to avoid any emergency room in the near future, because there is the chance that an Ebola patient might contaminate the premises. What these patients are all doing is choosing a strategy for living that guarantees an increase in anxiety and never offers real protection from Ebola. Let me explain.

If you follow all of the news stories about Ebola, especially the ones that speculate about world outbreak, then chances are that you are engaging in compulsive reassurance seeking. Unless you live in West Africa, or you are a relief worker planning to travel to West Africa, there is no need to read about the dangers of flying on a plane with an Ebola patient or how difficult it is to properly remove Ebola-contaminated protective gear. Fear of uncertainty can make it easy to believe that the imagined awful future is the one in which you should dwell. Your anxiety gives you a false signal that makes you feel as though the imagined awful future is real when it has not even happened. The more you take action to avoid harm, then the more real the imagined future feels in your mind. You lose your ability to accept and enjoy the calm of the present and instead believe that your worry, avoidance, compulsions and reassurance seeking protects you from the imagined awful future.

What are steps you can take to avoid investing in your anxiety?

  1. Wait for your local health authorities to tell you what to do. Let someone who is logical and unencumbered by anxiety assess what actions should be taken. When was the last time you chose a panicky person to make your best health care decisions?

  2. Remind yourself that the best choice is always to live in the present moment. Of course it would be frightening to actually have Ebola, but until tragedy strikes your best choice is to enjoy the good health that you have while you have it.

  3. Stop feeding your fear by seeking reassurance (the false illusion that you are gaining productive information). Likewise, stop talking about Ebola to others.

  4. If you get repetitive intrusive thoughts about dying from Ebola, then use imaginal exposure to help your mind get used to your thoughts. This means thinking about these thoughts as intensely as you can and not quitting until you get used to them.

  5. Do not avoid going out in public, avoid touching surfaces or start using protective measures unless your local government begins telling everyone to do this. If you make this mistake, you will feel more and more as though your every day life is dangerous when it is clearly safe.

  6. Contact a mental health professional with expertise in anxiety disorders if you are unable to follow these suggestions. The greatest threat to your well-being is the one that anxiety poses and not the content of your worry.

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