On the day of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I got a call from an out of state friend at 5:45 a.m. She told me about the disaster and devastation affecting our allies overseas and warned me to be careful. The call was curious; though I do live in San Francisco, I don't live near the beach and the chance that I would wake up and take a drive to the coast is a near zero probability event.

Don't get me wrong, the threat was taken seriously here--the highway near the beach was reportedly closed throughout much of the morning. Caution was wisely advised.

Now, in California, amid fears regarding Japan's nuclear power plants, there is sudden demand for potassium iodide tablets. These tablets are taken in the case of radiation poisoning. Likewise, seaweed, which contains iodine (a chemical relative of iodide), is reportedly sold out at the grocery store near my office.

I am as afraid of radiation sickness as the next person, but only if there is a real risk. And it seems that for right now, there is virtually no risk of radiation attacking California shores. So why the panic?

The idea of hysteria was popularized by Freud. He (along with Joseph Breuer) originally thought that hysterical illness was related to fear. If we take mass hysteria and view it through this lens, then the call from my friend and the desperate search for pills to ease an illness that has not yet manifested makes more sense: Many of us feel terrified and helpless regarding what has happened in Japan. To think that such a random event can happen to normal people going about their everyday lives is simply hard to digest. However, here in California, the fear has much more resonance. We are no strangers to earthquakes and even tsunamis. Many of us in California can imagine ourselves in a similar situation as some in Japan. Quite simply put, the feelings are just too hard to bear.

So while searching for iodide may soothe some of our fears, it does not remove the feelings we have about how random events occur and destroy life. The sad reality is, natural disasters happen, and human initiated tragedies occur as well. Even more unsettling is that bad things happen to good people, and even to those whom we can identify with and relate. Managing the feelings we have about the tragedy in Japan can have it's own rewards, however. One advantage is that it can help us realize that seeking a "cure" in the form of potassium iodide won't actually change how much our friends in Japan are suffering.

About the Author

Tamara Greenberg

Tamara McClintock Greenberg, Psy.D., M.S., is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

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