When bad news makes you sick

World and national events are frightening and fear may impact your health more than you realize.
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Terror and gun violence incidents may lead to a level of anxiety and fear that negatively impacts your health. An expert shares coping tips. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

There is no denying it—these are scary times in a world shaken by increasing acts of terrorism and violence.

Some people are able to distance themselves from these events, both physically and emotionally. They continue in their daily lives, maybe a little more watchful and prayerful, but otherwise little impacted.

People of all ages, however, may be finding that the fear of terrorism and their growing anxiety about world unrest is hurting their health, both physically and emotionally.

“Fear affects people in so many different ways,” said Philip Henderson, MD, division chief of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics for Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“Some people see disasters or acts of terrorism as something that happens (elsewhere) and they are able to detach themselves from overly worrying about experiencing a similar tragedy,” he added. “Life goes on. It’s the people who internalize or fixate on such events who we need to worry about.”

People who live in fear exhibit several troubling behaviors:

  • They stop eating or start eating too much.
  • They have trouble sleeping and concentrating on tasks.
  • They can’t pull themselves away from relentlessly following the news.
  • They may turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve their intense stress.
  • Where they go and what they do each day starts to be dictated by their fear.
  • They stop caring about or worry too much about their personal health.

“Fear can make them sick,” Henderson said.

He advises friends and family members to pay attention to people in their lives who seem to be struggling lately or may be overly fearful.

“We often don’t recognize in ourselves that we have changed our behavior and perhaps negatively impacted our health until someone who cares steps in and tries to help,” he adds. “That help might just be talking about what is causing the worry. People who internalize their fears need to talk about them to put things in perspective.”

Dr. Henderson has some tips to help diffuse fears:

  • Live your life.
    “The bad guys want to disrupt our day-to-day existence. Just going about your life gives you strength.”
  • Express your concerns to a friend or family member.
    “Talking about what is worrying you can help alleviate irrational fear.”
  • Focus on the positives in your life.
    “Particularly during the holidays, we need to enjoy our friends and families. Laughter and joy are good for your health.”
  • Get moving.
    “Getting out and about and exercising really can impact your mood for the better.”
  • Watch your diet.
    “A little holiday indulging is fine, but try to stay with a balanced and healthy diet whenever possible.”
  • Turn off the news.
    “When you stay focused on horrors, everything is frightening. Take your news in small doses. Find stories that make you happy, most of which is not likely to be found in the news.”

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