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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Q. How would you deal with patients who are fearful of bioterrorism? This seems to be a growing concern...

A. This is a time when fears of bioterrorism and terrorism in general appear to be fairly widespread. In fact, a recent study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that around 9 in 10 Americans have felt some degree of increased stress, following the September 11 attacks. This is not, in other words, an abnormal reaction to terrorism, nor is it necessarily something for which one should seek professional help. After all, there is an obvious element of truth to the fear that we are all potential victims of terrorism--we are not talking about a totally irrational anxiety reaction, such as having a panic attack whenever one makes a public speech or goes out on a date.

On the other hand, some individuals cross over from normal fear into pathological anxiety. These people may find that they are unable to eat or sleep, in the weeks since September 11; that they are too fearful to leave the house; that they are having horrible nightmares related to the attacks, flashbacks of the World Trade Center collapsing, etc. Some of these individuals may be diagnosed with Acute Stress Disorder or Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They may require professional help, including some form of psychotherapy, medication, or both.

For those of us who are simply more on edge about terrorism, professional intervention is probably not necessary, though it may still be helpful. Most folks with normal fears about terrorism will benefit simply by talking with friends and family; by participating in volunteer work aimed at helping victims of the September 11 attacks; by engaging in some meaningful coping strategy, such as writing a poem or an article; and by finding solace in one's religious or spiritual community. People who are interested in learning more about therapeutic options in the wake of September 11 may want to investigate www.mentalhealth.org/cmhs/EmergencyServices/.

January 2002

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