Suppressing negative emotions during health scare may whip up spiral of fear

July 10, 2018, Pennsylvania State University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Trying to suppress worries during a health scare, like the recent Zika outbreak, may lead to an ever-intensifying cycle of emotional suppression and fear, according to a team of researchers.

In a study of pregnant women in areas of the United States vulnerable to the Zika virus, the found that women who tried to suppress their fears reported higher levels of fear later, which, in turn, prompted more emotional suppression. Pregnant women were particularly concerned about Zika because media sources at the time reported that the virus, spread mainly by mosquitoes, could cause birth defects, including brain damage.

"It turns out that not only is suppression ineffective at handling fear, but it's counter-productive," said James Dillard, Distinguished Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences. "It creates a cycle of fear—and it's a vicious cycle."

According to the researchers, suppression—actively trying to tamp down fear—is one strategy people use to manage their fears. Among other strategies, people may also try to avoid bad news, reappraise the situation, or contest the information with counter-arguments. While the researchers found that none of these strategies helped to manage fear during the Zika scare, suppression was the only strategy that they studied that actually increased the fear, said Dillard.

Ironically, the researchers—who report their findings in the current issue of PLOS ONE—suggested that, based on risk, the problems associated with stress and anxiety caused by a health scare—in this case, Zika—may be as consequential as the actual disease. For example, while the pregnant women may have feared that Zika threatened the health of their unborn babies, previous studies of during the 9/11 attacks showed that fear and stress reduced infant birth weights.

"When people become frightened there are some good things that can happen—they search out information, they get politically engaged, they might engage in self-protective behavior—but when people get really scared, it's harmful for them," said Dillard. "Stress hormones pour out and staying in that hyper-vigilant state—fear—is also resource intensive."

Dillard said that because people at risk will search on the web for information, should try to stay one step ahead of the outbreak and provide quality information about growing health crises.

He added that health officials may also want to inform the public about the stress and fear that may accompany disease outbreaks and other health concerns to help them manage their emotional response to the news.

"The other thing we can do that hasn't been done is we can warn people that they may become frightened to inoculate them against that ," said Dillard, who also worked with Chun Yang and Ruobing Li, both former doctoral students in mass communications, Penn State. Yang and Li are currently assistant professors of communication at Louisiana State University.

While the study focused on fear of an epidemic, Dillard said the findings may also apply to other concerns, such as environmental and natural disasters.

The researchers recruited 1002 women between the ages of 18 and 35 who lived in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, all states that were thought to be in range of mosquitoes that could carry the disease, with 912 participants providing usable data. To calculate emotional responses and levels of fear over time, the researchers collected data in two waves. The first collection occurred between Feb. 10 and Feb. 20, 2016, nine days after the World Health Organization declared Zika an international health emergency. The second collection occurred between March 1 and March 15, 2016.

The researchers asked the participants to fill out a survey to assess their and their use of emotional regulation strategies, which included avoidance, reappraisal, contesting and suppression.

Future research could be aimed at identifying effective emotion regulation strategies to help people better cope with health scares and other concerns, according to the researchers.

Explore further: CDC shutters command center for Zika monitoring

Related Stories

CDC shutters command center for Zika monitoring

October 3, 2017
With Zika waning in the Caribbean and South America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Friday that the federal agency was deactivating the command center for monitoring and coordinating emergency ...

US declares Zika public health emergency in Puerto Rico

August 13, 2016
US health authorities on Friday declared a public health emergency in Puerto Rico due to the outbreak of Zika, which has now infected more than 10,000 people.

Zika birth defects in 5 percent of infected women in US islands

June 8, 2017
Five percent of women in the US territories who were infected with the Zika virus while pregnant had fetus or babies with defects, including microcephaly, government health data said Thursday.

Doctors urged to check pregnant women for Zika at each visit

July 25, 2016
U.S. health officials are strongly urging doctors to ask all pregnant women about a possible Zika infection at every checkup.

Historian on Zika's ethical, moral and social complexity for women

June 28, 2016
The Zika virus, like Ebola and other public health issues before it, bring up a variety of complex issues for women, says a Purdue University expert who studies the history of medicine and women's health.

CDC issues Texas city warning for pregnant women after Zika

December 14, 2016
Federal health officials say pregnant women should consider postponing travel to Brownsville, Texas, because of concerns about mosquitoes there spreading the Zika virus.

Recommended for you

Dietary fat is good? Dietary fat is bad? Coming to consensus

November 15, 2018
Which is better, a low-fat/high-carbohydrate diet or a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet—or is it the type of fat that matters? In a new paper featured on the cover of Science magazine's special issue on nutrition, researchers ...

Why we shouldn't like coffee, but we do

November 15, 2018
Why do we like the bitter taste of coffee? Bitterness evolved as a natural warning system to protect the body from harmful substances. By evolutionary logic, we should want to spit it out.

Survey reveals how we use music as a possible sleep aid

November 14, 2018
Many individuals use music in the hope that it fights sleep difficulties, according to a study published November 14 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Tabitha Trahan of the University of Sheffield, UK, and colleagues. ...

Colder, darker climates increase alcohol consumption and liver disease

November 14, 2018
Where you live could influence how much you drink. According to new research from the University of Pittsburgh Division of Gastroenterology, people living in colder regions with less sunlight drink more alcohol than their ...

Want to cut down on your meds? Your pharmacist can help.

November 14, 2018
Pharmacists are pivotal in the process of deprescribing risky medications in seniors, leading many to stop taking unnecessary sleeping pills, anti-inflammatories and other drugs, a new Canadian study has found.

No accounting for these tastes: Artificial flavors a mystery

November 13, 2018
Six artificial flavors are being ordered out of the food supply in a dispute over their safety, but good luck to anyone who wants to know which cookies, candies or drinks they're in.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.