SARS - Coping with the fear of the unknown


It is hard to know what to believe. Every time we turn on the radio or television there is another warning: warning about travelling, warning about the latest medical or food  test results, warning about bacteria in the water, pesticides in the food, crime rates, terrorism and new diseases.


Life is challenging. We work hard to keep up with our jobs, raise our families well  and provide comfortable homes. We struggle to protect our children from negative influences. All it takes is one scary thing to tip the balance. After a long winter of economic uncertainty, bitterly cold weather and a war many donít understand, the SARS scare can be the straw that  breaks the camelís back.


Many people are coming into my office with escalating fears. In some cases these fears are leading to anxiety attacks and panic disorder. The more frightened people are the less they  think rationally. When people canít think rationally, they donít live well. Fear is not an emotion conducive to healthy living. Fear breeds more fear and becomes a vicious cycle. The potential for disaster is great.


Each and every individual needs to be proactive and responsible for themselves and their loved ones. Feeling  powerless by events that are beyond our control can be paralysing. It can lead to despair and hopelessness. The secret to feeling better is to gain back control. Talking to loved ones and sharing  concerns is a way to stay grounded. Remember  ď a burden shared is a burden halvedĒ. Nothing is worse than living in isolation.


We need to act more and worry less. There are good sources of reliable information around us. Check them out if you are not sure you are getting good advice or good information from the television. Watching the same thing over and over again can make it seem much bigger than it really is. Several websites are available: By checking into the Canadian government website at you will find links to updates on SARS and also  links to information and guidelines from the World Health Organization and the Centre for Disease Control. The phone number for information for the public in Canada is 1-800-454-8302. None of us have to be victims of the media.


Acting on our fears by getting good information is a way of taking control. Making conscious decisions about how we are going to respond is another. Health authorities are taking  steps to protect the public as new information comes to light. Every day new discoveries are being made. Decide what you need to do for yourself within your own comfort levels. If staying away from Toronto or cancelling travel plans works for you, do it. A TV announcer reminded us last week that a driver is 500 times more likely to get into a car accident in Toronto than to contract SARS there. I,  personally, recently made the decision to go to Toronto and enjoy my day.


Much of our  pain is caused by worrying about things that have happened in our past or that might happen in our future. If you have no  reason to feel  in danger of getting a contagious disease, then make a conscious decision to put it out of your mind and get on with your life.  Unless you have been in close contact with a person carrying the virus, your chances of contracting the illness are unlikely.


We are like little children in the dark. We donít know what is out there. We need to treat ourselves like the children we so easily comfort. Put  real dangers into perspective. Trust the people in charge to act responsibly and keep us informed. Drink warm milk and get enough sleep. Eat well and exercise well. Wash your hands often.  Keep perspective. Curl up with a good video and teddy bear when you feel tired or frightened. In truth, these are frightening times.


Normally, we do not walk around afraid of getting pneumonia, the flu,  chicken pox and measles though we take sensible precautions.  A recent article in the Herald Tribune by Philip Bowring, Is Fear Spreading Faster than SARS, reminds us that the mortality rate of around 4 % for SARS is the same as that of pneumonia.


If you are experiencing extreme fear reactions or symptoms of anxiety attacks (heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, shaking, sensations of shortness of breath, feeling of choking, chest pain, dizziness etc) call your EAP counsellor. It always helps to talk to someone.