Here's How to Stop Catastrophizing About Ebola!

Psychological tools and information to damp down your brain's threat response

Posted Oct 17, 2014

The widespread panic about an Ebola epidemic in the US is a perfect example of what psychologists call “Catastrophizing.”  To catastrophize means to overestimate the probability of a negative event occurring. You may also see the event as uncontrollable and all-powerful and you may underestimate your resources to cope or your ability to obtain assistance from others.  Because getting Ebola actually is a really bad outcome, this can be a prime target for catastrophizing about your chances of getting infected.

 Why Do We Catastrophize?

I see clients who catastrophize all the time and my job is to help them calm down and think more realistically about the situation.  Catastrophizing is a key part of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder, but it’s also a part of normal mental processes because of how our brains are wired. Our brains are wired to keep us alive and healthy, not necessarily to make us feel happy and relaxed.  Our ancestors dealt with threats to survival on a daily basis, including famine, animal predators, and disease in the absence of medications or sanitation. To accommodate these conditions, our brains developed as survival machines and they haven’t caught up to the modern world with all its technological tools for safety.

Fear and the Brain

To help you understand how this works, I’ll describe how fear is processed in our brains.  Research in animals and humans suggests are two main pathways for fear - (1) a rapid route from our senses through the limbic system in the lower brain designed to prompt quick, emergency responses when there is no time to evaluate things in detail, and (2) a slower route through our prefrontal cortex or thinking center that can facilitate optimal decision-making when the threat is less imminent. The cues that stimulate the lower route are things that were really dangerous to our ancestors - a sudden noise in the dark, a shape on the path that looks like a snake, the smell of smoke, or feeling at risk for a deadly disease.

So, when exposed to constant news reports about the spread of Ebola, the risk to the US, how our government and hospitals don’t have things under control, and now, how you might catch Ebola on an airplane, our brains keep getting triggered into full-on emergency mode.  The thalamus sends information from the senses to our amygdala, which evaluates the threat as dangerous and mounts a full-on chemical response.  The stress chemicals, epinephrine and cortisol, get triggered, putting our brains and bodies into “fight or flight.”  Our hearts start racing, breathing gets shallow, muscles tense as our bodies get wired to “do something” to keep ourselves safe.  On a mental level, our brains go on alert and we become reactive to signs of threat that are all around us in the media and fearful conversations.

How You Can Stop Catastrophizing

So, how do you calm down and stop catastrophizing about Ebola?  The trick is to slow down enough so you can recruit the brain’s slower route through your brain’s prefrontal cortex.  In other words, ask yourself some questions and find information  that will help you rationally evaluate the threat, rather than just reacting automatically.

How likely is it that a person in the US will actually die from Ebola? Any rational person would agree that the chances are extremely rare.  Right now, only one person in the US has died from Ebola.  That person came from Liberia where he had direct contact with a symptomatic  Ebola patient without protective gear.  Thomas Duncan actually helped carry a pregnant woman who was dying from Ebola. Two US healthcare workers have also been diagnosed with Ebola.  Both had direct physical contact with Thomas Duncan while he was secreting copious bodily fluids.  This should not have happened, but it doesn’t necessarily put you in personal danger.

The government and CDC s under a ton of political pressure to put better safety measures in place.  We have a lot of money and expertise to get this done, so we can anticipate improved measures in the future.  One thing the government has done well is to track all the people who have had contact with an infected person and survey or quarantine them.  The fact that the one nurse flew by airplane also should not have happened, but she was not symptomatic and likely did not excrete bodily fluids onto other passengers. Remember, the virus is not like the flu that can be transmitted by air.  The passengers are being monitored and the plane disinfected.  We also have experimental drugs available that have helped some patients to survive.

Risk in the US versus West Africa 

If you live in the US, you are not even close to the same level of risk as people living in West Africa. In West African countries such as Liberia, people are poor and uneducated and the transport and communication infrastructures are basic or nonexistent.  As one article put it:   

"The CDC has 371,000 followers on Twitter, which means it can reach more people in one second through a single tweet than outreach workers in West Africa can in weeks.

In West Africa, they have to rely on face-to-face contact and tribal chiefs to spread the news. Further, hospitals lack money to pay healthcare worker and there is a severe shortage of trained healthcare workers.  Basics like rubber gloves, clean water, antibacterial cleaners, and clean needles are in very limited supply. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to generalize from the rapid spread in Liberia to your own level of risk.  

The bottom line is this.  The virus is a real and imminent danger to people in West Africa and we can best stop its spread by helping them.  In the US, we have a huge amount of expertise, money, technology,  and infrastructure to deal with Ebola  It makes sense to stay alert and informed, but  keep your amygdala in check so you can go out and enjoy your day :)


For more science-based psychological tools to help you manage anxiety and catastrophizing, read this article: 

About The Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Practicing Psychologist and LIfe Coach in the San Francisco Bay area and author of an upcoming book on stress and neuroscience. Dr. Greenberg is often quoted in national media on topics of motivationpositive psychologymindfulness,dealing with your inner critic, and coping with stress and anxiety.  She offers in-person psychotherapy and life coaching via distance technologies. Dr. Greenberg also conducts workshops for organizations. 

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