Literally Sick of Fearmongering

“In every life we have some trouble
When you worry you make it double”

–Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, By Happy”

Stressed Out Cat
There is always something to be afraid of, if the headlines are anything to go by.

One of the most recent scares is the ebola virus. In what has been termed “The Ebola Effect”, schools were closing down, traffic was shut down, employees were put on leave, and sales of hand sanitizers skyrocketed.1,2 These overreactions often occurred because someone was displaying flulike symptoms such as a fever, or because someone was in the same city as a known ebola patient.

And all of it is for nothing, really. You are much more likely to die from the flu than from ebola. Also worth noting: Every single person who contracted ebola in the U.S. has completely recovered.3

So ebola may not be much of a problem, but the fear that it generated sure is. What does all this fear do for us? The exaggerated response to ebola is similar to other forms of fearmongering that I discuss in my book, The End of the World Delusion.4

Think back to some of the stories of the last ten years, and you may remember sensationalized media reports on alligator and shark attacks, child abductions, the West Nile virus, SARS, anthrax, mad cow disease, and others. All of these events certainly happened but were greatly exaggerated and left the news consumer with the impression that they were happening to a much greater extent than they actually were.

There are a number of other health effects, as well. Read what risk perception consultant, David Ropeik, has to say about it.5 Or listen to Maddox read it for you:6

When we worry, that, biologically, is stress—that’s a mini fight-or-flight response going on in the body. When stress persists for more than several days (short-term stress is not the problem), it becomes damaging to our health. Chronic stress raises our blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems; it suppresses our immune system and makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases or get sicker from them if we do. It interferes with neurotransmitters associated with mood, and it is strongly associated with clinical depression. Chronic stress interferes with digestion and memory and depresses fertility and bone growth (slows it down).

It should come as no surprise that panic/worry/stress leads to such problems. Researchers have known this for years:7

Individuals who experience a variety of different types of stressors… have fewer B, T, and NK cells. For example, one study… showed that on days in which people experienced more positive events, their bodies produced more antibodies, whereas on days with more negative events their bodies produced fewer antibodies.

This translates directly to being more susceptible to disease:8

Over the last 25 years, Sheldon Cohen, an American psychologist, has investigated the extent to which psychological and social factors influence susceptibility to infectious illnesses such as the common cold. As part of the research programme, Cohen and his associates have developed an unusual prospective study design in which healthy participants are exposed to a virus that causes the common cold. Participants are then observed following exposure in order to examine who develops a respiratory illness and reports cold-like symptoms. All participants also complete various psychological measures at baseline to assess their mood and whether they have had any recent stressful life events, and to measure their current level of perceived stress.

In 1991 Cohen and colleagues demonstrated for the first time that increases in psychological stress are associated with increases in risk for developing a cold after exposure to a cold virus. They also demonstrated that this association was independent of numerous other factors (such as season of the year, age, sex, education, allergic status and body mass index). In addition, they investigated whether this increased susceptibility was associated with changes in stress-related health behaviours such as smoking, exercise and diet. Their results showed that none of these factors explained the relationship.

Hence the reason for this blog entry’s headline: “Literally sick of fearmongering.” As if that weren’t enough, though, stress is even contributing to the obesity epidemic:9

Rick Jackson: Another big cause of obesity stems from stress. Prolonged stress can cause your body to unleash a hormone called cortisol that increases your appetite. In some cases, chronic stress can actually cause the body’s stress response system to get stuck in the “on” position, causing persistent hormonal problems that lead to diabetes and other complications… Stress and bad eating habits become a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.

According to comics legend Grant Morrison, this type of scaremongering and doomsaying leads to a variety of other social ills:10

We tell our children they’re trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions, then raise a disapproving eyebrow when, in response, they dress in black, cut themselves with razors, starve themselves, gorge themselves, or kill one another.

Since nothing good can come from worrying about things that are really a non-issue. Why give in to the panic? Rather than allowing yourself to go MAD, an alternative would be to adopt Alfred E. Neuman’s slogan: “What, me worry?”

Alfred E. Neuman


  1. Murray, R. (2014, October 16). The ebola effect: Schools shut down, sanitizer sales spike. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Business/ebola-effect-schools-shut-sanitizer-sales-spike/story?id=26247311
  2. Evans, C. (2014, October 18). Ebola panic spreading much faster than disease in U.S. CBS News. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ebola-panic-in-us-spreading-much-faster-than-disease/
  3. Culp-Ressler, T. (2014, November 17). You’re much more likely to survive ebola if you catch it in America. Think Progress. Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/health/2014/11/17/3592997/ebola-survival-rates/
  4. Deering, J. (2012). The end of the world delusion: How doomsayers endanger society. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.
  5. Zimmerman, R. (2014, October 16). Don’t worry, be rational: Why extreme fear of ebola is bad for your health. WBUR’s Common Health. Retrieved from http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2014/10/extreme-fear-of-ebola-bad-for-health
  6. Ouzounian, G., & Herrera, D. (2014, October 21). Episode 23 [Podcast]. The Biggest Problem in the Universe. Retrieved from http://thebiggestproblemintheuniverse.com/episode-23/
  7. Sanderson, C. A. (2013). Health psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  8. O’Connor, D., Jones, F., Conner, M., & Abraham, C. (2011). A biopsychosocial approach to health psychology. In G. Davey (Ed.), Applied psychology (pp. 151–169). London, UK: British Psychological Society/Blackwell, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons.
  9. Colby, K. (Segment Producer) & Baker, K. (Coordinating Producer). Be well: Obesity [Video file]. WVIZ PBS: Ideastream. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?&v=2txrbM-UdbY#t=2009
  10. Morrison, G. (2012). Supergods: What masked vigilantes, miraculous mutants, and a sun god from Smallville can teach us about being human. New York, NY: Random House.

1 comment

  1. Alexis says:

    You are so right! And even worse: the Government and the media are behind over 99% of the fear-mongering for their own purposes. The media want increased attention to raise increased ad revenue. The Government wants to control us, so they give us fear in order to convince us to give up more power to the Government and to give up our Liberties in exchange for purported increased security. Much like George Orwell reported in his 1949 book “1984″. Your blog was very interesting and well-written. As an aspiring writer myself, I admire great writers!!

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