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Preparation may relieve stress of terrorist threats, says APSU professor

February 26, 2003

Warnings about terrorist threats have sent anxious Americans to home improvement centers in search of duct tape and plastic sheeting. Are we reducing our stress level by taking such precautionary measures? Or adding to it?

The stress many are experiencing in the post-9-11 environment comes from a loss of control, says Dr. Wayne M. Chaffin, professor and chair of health and human performance at Austin Peay. People perceive themselves to be threatened and, more important, unable to do anything about it.
February 26, 2003

Warnings about terrorist threats have sent anxious Americans to home improvement centers in search of duct tape and plastic sheeting. Are we reducing our stress level by taking such precautionary measures? Or adding to it?

The stress many are experiencing in the post-9-11 environment comes from a loss of control, says Dr. Wayne M. Chaffin, professor and chair of health and human performance at Austin Peay. People perceive themselves to be threatened and, more important, unable to do anything about it.

By putting recommended safeguards in place, we may actually reduce stress by giving ourselves a greater sense of control.

The first reaction to disaster is shock, Chaffin says. But eventually people go into a stage of “suggestibility,” meaning they become more willing to follow suggestions, either from the government or experts, to protect themselves from additional threats.

This new mindset enables us to accept safeguards like extensive pre-flight luggage checks. In like manner, we are more likely to take to heart Homeland Security suggestions that we have duct tape and plastic sheeting on hand to protect ourselves against toxic gas attacks. Paradoxically, in accepting such restrictive or controlling measures, we actually regain a sense of control.

"While there is some degree of stress that follows when an individual can no longer take certain things onto an airplane or when the terror alert goes to orange, there is also a feeling ‘I'm being protected.' The precautionary measures actually may put us in a less stressed state,” Chaffin said.

The key to avoiding negative stress lies in not going overboard in preparing for or anticipating negative events. High levels of stress over a long period of time can lead to cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and strokes.

"Fifty percent or more of individuals hospitalized are experiencing disease or illness that is stress-related,” said Chaffin. “Over a period of time, stress weakens your immune system, making you more susceptible to related diseases.”

To help cope with the stress that can come with heightened security alerts, Chaffin recommends exercising positive thinking.

"Perceive this time as our preparation, our defense or armor. We are working to prevent another attack from occurring,” he says. While we can't be certain our actions will prevent another attack, accepting that there are things we cannot control and understanding that our precautions can protect us should help alleviate stress, he says.

“In taking precautionary measures, we are wrestling control back to ourselves.”