Health Anxiety and the Ebola Outbreak: A Reality Check

Health Anxiety and the Ebola Outbreak: A Reality Check

If you’re able to laugh at the absurdity of a statement like this, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. For many with health anxiety, the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has led to fears just like this one, leading those individuals to desperately seek reassurance — from online message boards, from loved ones, and in hospital emergency rooms.

The sad reality is that in the age of the 24/7 news media, even small, isolated disease outbreaks can feel like immediate, urgent concerns to people around the world. If you have health anxiety, the Ebola coverage over the last couple months may have been especially hard on you.

Strategies for Reining in Your Fear

Know the facts. Did you know that you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than contracting Ebola? Unlike airborne viruses like the cold and flu, you can only contract Ebola through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. So if you haven’t cared for an Ebola patient or traveled to one of the affected West African countries recently, this means that you have virtually no risk of becoming infected.

Remember that cautionary measures are in place. The U.S. Centers for Disease control and other global authorities are taking strict precautionary measures to stop the outbreak at its root. Travelers at airports in West Africa are screened for illness before being allowed to board planes; airlines must alert authorities to sick travelers before landing in the U.S.; and hospitals nationwide are conducting drills for the possibility of an infected patient. Furthermore, it’s important to understand how much better equipped the U.S. is to handle infectious disease outbreaks than the impoverished West African countries that are currently grappling with the disease.

Keep yourself healthy. It’s almost funny to think about how many of the same individuals who are terrified of catching Ebola are also doing things on a daily basis that put their health at greater risk: skipping exercise, eating junk food, not getting enough sleep, drinking too much alcohol … the list goes on. The best defense against any virus – from the common cold to Ebola – is to live a healthy lifestyle.

Limit your media exposure. This is my personal favorite strategy for worrying less about the Ebola outbreak. Being too connected can lead us to obsess over all the bad news that’s out there, especially with media coverage as overblown and sensationalized as it is today. If keeping current helps ease your anxiety, seek factual information from reputable, unbiased news sources, and only check in once a day. If nothing else, try avoiding 24/7 news channels such as CNN and Fox News.

These strategies are effective, but if you have severe health anxiety you may still become overwhelmed by fear. If your fear of Ebola is interfering with your day-to-day functioning, seek help from a doctor or mental health professional.