SARS: Keeping risk in check

When facing a real threat, how do you keep from overreacting?

By Colin Allen, published on April 1, 2003 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

A new and deadly disease, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS),
has many health experts worried that they may have a pandemic on their
hands. Yet those same experts also recognize that influenza, the more
common flu, has historically been a more persistent and deadly danger. So
while SARS could potentially spread and infect more people worldwide,
some psychologists are concerned--that the fear of contracting SARS is
more perilous than the virus itself.

As of Thursday, April 3, SARS has claimed the lives of an estimated
78 people and made an additional 2,151 people ill. In contrast, influenza
kills between 250,000 and 500,000 people a year. The two illnesses share
several traits: both are highly contagious respiratory diseases and can
jump from animals to humans.

"People don't get hysterical about the flu--because that is an old
risk," says Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., a psychologist in private practice in
Valley Stream, New York. "Most people over-react to something like this
because the risk is new." Sapadin notes that the heavy media coverage
SARS has received is disproportionate to the disease's actual
risk.

"There is no point in having a fear response unless there is
something you can do about it," notes Sapadin. Living in fear can be both
mentally and physically debilitating. To determine whether you are
overreacting to a fear of SARS or any life stress, Sapadin suggests
comparing the intensity of others' reactions to that of your own. Also,
bear in mind that risk is an inevitable part of every-day life. "There is
nothing you can really do to make life risk-free," she says.

Linda Sapadin is the author of
You Don't Have to Live in Fear, which is scheduled
for publication in late 2003.

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