SARS: Keeping risk in check

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

By Colin Allen, published April 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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.

For more on anxiety, click here