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Health & Balance

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When Health Fears Are Overblown

Experts discuss the fine line between appropriate health concerns and hyped-up fears.

Media: A Cause of Free-Form Fear? continued...

Gruman points out that when the link between smoking and lung cancer came out people stopped smoking in noticeable numbers. But now that has leveled out. Since the link between various diseases and obesity came out in the mid-1990s, there has been no downward change in weight in the nation. Quite the opposite.

Women went "nuts," as Gruman puts it, over the statistic that one in nine women will suffer from breast cancer. But they didn't know how to personalize that risk, including their own family background and lifestyle choices. "There was just a screen of hysteria. We make choices of what to fear."

Control: An Element in Dissipating Fear

One doctor pointed out that heart disease may be less feared because it is considered to be chronic and controllable by medication, stents, and the like. Breast cancer can also necessitate major surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, making it scarier.

In an example of a positive form of fear, AIDS has also become less scary since it became more controllable. Some people with the disease are now indulging in risky behaviors again.

Gruman maintains that taking steps to exert control of a condition also controls fear. But if people can control smoking, weight, and exercise -- if these are controllable variables -- then why don't people feel less fear?

Gruman says these factors may be controllable, but control is very difficult to achieve. Washing hands frequently during the day is the one thing public health officials say could mitigate the risk of infection with flu and other diseases. This is easy and doable and can ease fear. "But they don't say that," she says, "instead they say, 'There isn't enough vaccine.'"

Fear: A Poor Motivator

Many studies have been done suggesting that fear messages are not effective in changing behavior. One theory is that people not only do not want to feel fear, but they also want to feel secure and hopeful.

The commercial of the man who ignored medical advice and smiles in embarrassment as he rises and taps his cane to get across the room is a fear message.

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