Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Scared To Death

Fear is an insidious monster. At its worst it can kill. At its best it is merely crippling. Then why is the media peddling fear? We are currently suffering from swine flu "news" overload. Is it doing us any good? Or will more people become sick because of the stress on their immune systems courtesy of your smiling television anchorperson.

From Effects of Stress and Psychological Disorders on the Immune System by David B. Beaton:

Internal factors such as stress have been implicated in causing a deficient immune system because of the nature of the body's response in dealing with this problem. The capabilities of the immune system are diminished after frequent activation of the autonomic nervous system in the case of chronic stresses. The immune system is downgraded to be able to continuously functioning.

In a large study involving parents of both children with cancer and parents with children who were relatively healthy, the results showed that chronic psychological stress might reduce the immune system's reactions to hormonal secretions that were normally used to fight the inflammatory response (Miller, Cohen, & Ritchey, 2002).

Perceived mood also seems to play a role in immune system effectiveness. Having a positive attitude seems to correlate with an increased ability of the immune system in fighting diseases. In cases where patients have exhibited fear before a surgery, they have had a longer healing time afterwards. Correlations were observed in the number of lymphocyte cells and the person's level of optimism.

Cardiovascular diseases are another area where stress could have a negative effect. The natural response of the fight or flight activation mechanism could have a decidedly negative impact on the cardiovascular system. Since the activation of the fight or flight system involves an increase in the heart rate, a frequent activation could increase the possibility of a heart attack or other negative aspect of the disease. Specifically, a study was done in an industrial work environment in which a much higher frequency of cardiovascular mortality was found to correlate with an environment in which there was very little reward incentive (Kivimaki et al., 2002).

Even in relatively less dangerous health problems, mood can have an effect. A study with the common cold and emotions showed that participants with happy emotions exhibited a greater ability to fight off the cold when given a squirt of the rhinovirus (Jones, 2003).

Remember Y2K? Who was responsible for all that hype? Don’t get me wrong, I think that the swine flu is dangerous. However, there is such a thing as reporting the news, and there is such a thing as creating a panic.

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