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Our reactions to fear can put us in peril

THE M.D.

When threats loom, we sometimes respond in foolish ways that defy logic.

February 09, 2009|Valerie Ulene

Simply recognizing where our fears come from can encourage us to be more careful about how we respond to them. Although the brain can't be rewired, we can choose to redirect our energy and attention, focusing on the things that are most likely to matter.

Instead of driving an alternate route to avoid a potential crane accident, we can reduce the risk of a car accident by staying off our cellphones when we're behind the wheel. Rather than eliminating meat from our diet to prevent mad cow disease, we can reduce our risk of heart disease and cancer by eating less red meat and more fruits and vegetables.

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Ulene is a board-certified specialist in preventive medicine practicing in Los Angeles.

themd@att.net

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fears influenced by headlines

The media clearly influence people's fears. We live in a 24/7 information bath, and much of what we see and hear focuses on dramatic -- and unusual -- events that grab our attention and scare us. Unfortunately, many of the things that are most likely to harm us go uncovered in the news. Plane crashes make headlines, whereas car accidents rarely get reported; reported shark attacks are major news stories, but drownings go largely ignored; terrorist threats are front page news while acts of domestic violence aren't even covered.

An October study by Canadian researchers examined how concerns about infectious diseases are dictated by the amount of media coverage they receive. The scientists presented students with a list of 10 infectious illnesses -- half of which had received recent attention in the popular media and half of which had not. When students were provided with only the names of the diseases, they ranked those that had received the most media coverage as the most serious.

However, when factual information about the diseases was provided but the diseases weren't identified by name, the way the students ranked them changed significantly: Diseases that had not received much media coverage now were perceived as more serious than their high-profile counterparts.

-- Valerie Ulene

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