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Be vigilant, not 'paranoid,' experts say

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who warned Monday of more possible terror attacks, faced the challenge of informing people without alarming them.  

By Thurston Hatcher

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Killing people wasn't No. 1 on his list as Ken Alibek reeled off the goals of biological warfare.

It was inciting panic and fear, the former Soviet biological weapons expert told members of the U.S. House of Representatives this month, followed by "paralyzing the nation."

But no matter how destructive the weapons, spreading anxiety on a massive scale is extraordinarily tough to achieve, experts say.

"To my knowledge, it has never succeeded that a terrorist group or any group could change the course of events in a country simply by activities that were meant to paralyze the population by inducing fear or anxiety," said David Barlow, director of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University.

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Barlow cites the Blitz of World War II, when England endured daily bombing raids by the Germans. But after an initial period of anxiety and dread, the British soon began going about their business again, he said.

That may be what's happening in the United States as well, he suggests, in the wake of the September 11 attacks and the ongoing anthrax scare as Americans regain what he calls "an illusion of control."

"You typically see an increase in anxiety and some change in behavior, and beginning about two weeks after the fact, a return to normal, that is, a slipping away from that and resumption of normal routines and kind of feeling among the population that they can manage risks," he said.

Walking a fine line

Still, the potential for trouble remains as the crisis drags on.

"I think the less we feel a sense of control and the longer there isn't any closure on it, the more we're going to be seeing anxiety building in people," said Jerilyn Ross, president and CEO of Anxiety Disorders Association of America.

That's why public officials must walk a fine line in educating the public about potential risks without instilling fear.

Criminologist Gregg McCrary, a former behavioral scientist for the FBI, said the agency gets criticized both when it doesn't warn people and when it does warn of a potential threat, as Attorney General John Ashcroft did Monday. But McCrary said the announcement alone doesn't amount to victory for terrorists.

"It's just a matter of being vigilant, not being paranoid, not being scared or terrorized by this. They win not by the announcement but how we react to it, so as long as we're not becoming terrorized by this, becoming fearful, becoming hysterical, they really haven't won," McCrary told CNN.

Anxiety or fear at normal levels aren't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they're a key part of how we function and even stay alive, experts said.

"Fear is something where there's some kind of impending danger that we sense, and it's our reaction to that impending danger, and it motivates us to protect ourselves and get out of harm's way," Ross said.

The same goes for anxiety, a less immediate emotional response. If you have a speech to give, a test to take or an important meeting, for example, some anxiety will help you focus on the event and make sure you're prepared for it, Barlow said.

Maintaining perspective

While it's perfectly normal to feel anxiety in a health or terrorism scare, psychologists said it's important to keep things in perspective.

"We do have a far greater chance of being killed or injured in an automobile accident than in a terrorist attack, yet we're not fearful to get in a car and drive," McCrary said. "That's the way we need to approach this problem. We need to approach it with reason, with prudence and just common sense."

But what if healthy fears or anxiety give way to something more troubling?

If several weeks pass and you're still losing sleep and feeling agitated and unfocused, and your overall ability to function has become impaired, it may be time to seek help, Barlow said.

Ross advises that people practice what she calls "stress hygiene," including eating well, exercising and getting more sleep.

"As we start neglecting sort of our stress hygiene, we then start to feel more vulnerable," Ross said. "This is what I think we have to be really collectively careful of."


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