“There is evidence that fear of disaster or disease can bring about coronary heart disease, a weakened immune system, and psychological distress,” says James Dillard. “In the case of Zika, women of child-bearing age who are attentive to media coverage might be particularly vulnerable to the type of fear that can have health repercussions.”
The fear of these diseases, however, may end up affecting more people’s health and causing more disruption to society than the diseases themselves, said James Dillard, professor of communication arts and sciences.
“Health scientists have argued that fear of a disease can have social and economic consequences that are as severe as the disease itself,” Dillard said. “People may avoid travel and become concerned about going to hospitals. In the case of Ebola, schools were closed.”
Fear can also prompt health concerns that have nothing to do with the actual disease.
“There is evidence that fear of disaster or disease can bring about coronary heart disease, a weakened immune system, and psychological distress,” according to Dillard. “In the case of Zika, women of child-bearing age who are attentive to media coverage might be particularly vulnerable to the type of fear that can have health repercussions.”
The researchers are examining whether higher levels of media exposure are associated with higher levels of fear, said research team member Ruobing Li, a doctoral candidate in the College of Communications.
The group recently finished a survey of about 1,002 women between 18 and 35 years of age in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, areas that could be particularly hard-hit by a Zika outbreak and are currently prone to an increasing number of media messages on the disease.
Dillard said the team also plans to compare the results with the findings of a survey of about 417 Dallas residents on Ebola shortly after a Dallas resident was diagnosed with Ebola. The team expects to publish those results soon.
“We are looking at whether they have heard about the disease and whether or not they are scared,” said Chun Yang, a doctoral candidate in the College of Communications, who also worked on the study. “Ultimately, we are looking for a correspondence between media consumption and fear. And, we are interested in finding out more about how people manage their fear.”
According to Dillard, people can manage their emotions to deal with the fear, but should be careful which emotional management strategies they use.
“Not all of these strategies are effective,” said Dillard. “For instance, trying to suppress thoughts or feelings is counterproductive. People who try to do this usually end up ruminating about the issue and feeling more fearful.”
He added that making a realistic assessment of the risk and developing a critical attitude toward media coverage both seem to be effective at reducing negative feelings.
Members of the news media interested in talking to Dillard or his colleagues should contact Matt Swayne at 814-865-5774 or firstname.lastname@example.org.