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Healthy Denial Does Wonders

Post-Sept. 11 jitters can be helped by turning down the information volume, experts say

THURSDAY, Nov. 15 , 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- We are inundated by bad news these day; we don't know what's true or not, and even if something is true, we can't do anything about it. And that's driving us to distraction.

If all this uncertainty in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks is getting you down, the experts have some simple advice: Too much information can be hazardous to your health; tune it out.

Dale Brashers, a professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois, has spent years studying the impact of uncertainty on patients with AIDS or HIV, the virus that causes the disease. He sees parallels between his patients' uncertainty and the public's concern about terrorism

"It's natural to think gathering more information will reduce uncertainty," Brashers says. "But in cases like this, more information simply causes greater anxiety, because often it forecasts negative consequences and is contradictory and unclear."

Add to this view a survey released today from RAND, the California-based research institute. Its researchers questioned 560 American adults between Sept. 14-16, and found that 90 percent of them said they had some measure of stress after the Sept. 11 attacks. And television figured heavily into the problem: On average, the adults watched about eight hours of the terrorism coverage; those who watched longer than that were more likely to say they had stress. The survey results appear in the Nov. 15 New England Journal of Medicine.

Brashers advises people to just back away. In an article in the November issue of the Journal of Communication, he points out, "You're only uncertain if you think you're uncertain."

He also outlines some techniques for managing chronic uncertainty. Among them:

  • Put long-term goals out of your mind and don't talk about them. Focus on the short term and achieving short-term goals.
  • Build structure into your life. Doing things the way you have always done them is reassuring.
  • Seek support from people who see things your way and don't make you feel inadequate, vulnerable or dependent.

The trouble with uncertainty is that people who have it tend to get stuck in the worry stage of the problem-solving cycle, says R. Reid Wilson, associate clinical professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Reid, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders, recommends healthy denial to overcome the problem.

"Turn off the TV. Stop reading articles. Don't call your friend who talks about terrorism all the time. Let go of the idea of resolving this problem. Reconcile yourself to the fact that this is going to take a while," he advises.

Other experts, however, are not certain that putting your head in the sand is the right approach in the long run.

Douglas Raybeck, a psychological anthropologist and professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y, says the desire to control our environment is an essential part of the culture in the United States.

"It goes back to the Protestant ethic and the frontier mentality. We believe fervently that if you strive to solve a problem, you can," he says.

That attitude, "coupled with complacency and abysmal ignorance of the rest of the world, is why our national psyche is so dented by the events since Sept. 11," he adds.

Raybeck believes a healthy dose of understanding about the realities and attitudes in the rest of the world would go a long way toward helping people in this country deal with the uncertainty of terrorism.

"Reciprocity is the world's most fundamental social rule. We have to understand that," he says.

What To Do

If you still want to try the informed approach, Raybeck suggests reading The Washington Post or The Los Angeles Times daily. He also likes the British Broadcasting Co. for a foreign perspective.

If you would rather deal with your anxiety by avoiding the stress of news, psychologist R. Reid Wilson sponsors a self-help website, Go there for advice on getting a grip.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dale Brashers, Ph.D., professor of speech communication, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; R. Reid Wilson, Ph.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and clinical psychologist in private practice; Douglas Raybeck, Ph.D., psychological anthropologist and professor, Hamilton College, Clinton, N.Y.; November 2001 Journal of Communication
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