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Take a good long look at the latest headlines, where a mysterious super pneumonia called SARS sweeps Asia, North Korea threatens to nuke New York City, unknown terrorists keep us at high alert at all times, an economic recovery that's had more fits and starts than Robert Downey Jr.'s attempts at sobriety, a war in Iraq dividing the international community, school shootings, Beltway snipers...

You're libel to panic from all this bad news.

Bill Murray said it best, "Riots in the streets, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!" And while mass hysteria is an all too real phenomenon these days, what with the run on duct tape six weeks ago, are we looking for reasons to be scared, or are we rightly scared because there are some damned good reasons?

To get to the bottom of the issue of anxiety, the Black Table talked with Dr. Robert R. Butterworth, Ph.D., a psychologist for International Trauma Associates.




BT: There's so much bad news out there. Terrorists are actively threatening us, but no one knows where they are. SARS is sweeping the globe and making people sick and no one can stop it. We're at war with Iraq and those images are on the nightly TV screens.

Dr. B: You know if it wasn't for the war, this SARS thing would really be a bigger deal. I just finished doing a whole bunch of stuff for NBC on that girl who was brought back. Elizabeth Smart didn't stop the world. Now, that was bad news turned good. Can you imagine bad news that doesn't turn good?

BT: One of the things that plagues me about all this…

Dr. B: One of the things that plagues you? (laughing)

BT: (laughing) …well yeah…

Dr. B: (laughing) That's not such a good word to use right now.

BT: Clearly. Given all the strange evil things that have happened over the last two years, like anthrax letters and school shootings and terrorism and biological warfare and mystery illnesses, we joke that sometimes it feels like the end of the world. So, uh, how much of this fear is in our head and how much of it is real?

Dr. B: I'm sure that there are a bunch of people out there, like the born-again Christians, who think that this is the end of things, you know. The problem is this, though. When you throw a statement out in a certain environment, the statement has a whole lot more validity. So, basically you turn on the television and not only are you seeing the war out there, but there's a little thing on the corner of the screen that's an orange alert. Right? Now that's supposed to increase our anxiety. That's what it's for. Right? It is the government's alert status. So when they throw something out like, "Oh, it's just a coincidence something bad happened, by the way, we're worried about biological terrorism." All of a sudden there's something going around and it can kill you and we can't cure it. I mean, regardless if it's not related, in a real sense it's psychologically related and has an effect. I'll give you an example. You can die of a heart attack by being told your wife just got killed and you can also die from a heart attack by being told you just won $20 million in the lottery. It doesn't even matter what the minus or plus signs are on the anxiety, so you know, it's just a question of the amount of intensity. So if that can happen in purely a negative or a positive situation, you can imagine how something this is dangerous but not related can still add up in terms of overwhelming our psyche.



BT: Can this fade over time? Say in ten years if we don't have a sizeable attack on the U.S.

Dr. B: Ten years? We tend to forget a lot quicker than that. I mean, look right after Sept. 11, we were all in shell shock and a lot of us do stuff for TV and we were on. Luckily I didn't say this one. We were hearing all these pundits saying, "You know, reality TV has just ended. Our reality is so bad that all of the producers are reevaluating the viability of reality TV." Yeah, right.

BT: Like Graydon Carter's oft-cited "end of irony" comment?

Dr. B: Exactly. And it's faded a lot in just two years. Our memories can be quite short. And so what's the difference between this ssituation, which scares us, and a place like Israel? Even though the numbers who are dead in Israel may not be in a sense as dramatic as the numbers who died on Sept. 11, the fact of the ongoing nature reminds you day-by-day, and that's even worse than one large situation. It's almost like Chinese water torture.

BT: But Israelis are constantly exposed to the violence. Wouldn't they be better equipped to deal withtheir fears since the fears are more real? In America, we don't see it in our face and are able to imagine worst-case scenarios, like SARS being a biological attack gone wrong or something.




Dr. B: There are two things that are not true. They used to think that people who would go through trauma in the past are better able to go through it now. That's not true. These people have more problems. And the second: If you really think that there's a society that's been battered actually does better because they're used to it? Fly to Moscow and walk around the streets. There's a collective depression in that place. People look down. There's no spontaneity. You get a real sense of this there. Getting used to something and being stress-free are two different things. Now, obviously if you're used to something then you can react better, but that doesn't mean that you feel better.

BT: How can you tell the difference between an irrational, "crazy" thought in this environment and the normal, healthy anxiety that your body produces to keep you safe?

Dr. B: You can't! Give me an example. That's kind of an abstract thought.

BT: Okay, say you work in downtown Manhattan and they close a bridge, which happens all the time down here. And then you get an email that says tomorrow there's going to be a terrorist attack and you're convinced that they're gonna hit downtown again and you just don't want to go to work.

Dr. B: Well, we've had that out here on the West Coast. We had that Nostradamus scare in Los Angeles. I was one of the people who went around and we were the Nostradamus busters. The whole world was supposed to come to an end and L.A. was supposed to fall into the ocean. And the people were leaving and then I went down to New Madrid in Missouri, where there was supposed to be something. And nothing happened. The first time they got the email warning, a certain number of people would not go to work. The second time, more people would go to work. The third time, more people would go to work. It's the Chicken Little syndrome. You lose your inhibitions. It just wears you down each time it doesn't happen. It's like these alerts. I know we need to know the alerts. But after so many times and nothing has happened, at one point, no matter how bright or how big we make it on the screen, people are going to go off with their daily lives only because it hasn't happened before. You just dis-inhibit. So you really can't tell the difference between a "crazy" fear and a real one. But if you're warned of things happening and they don't, then you just act as if they're not. Do you see what I mean?

BT: Down the road, though, what's your thoughts on America? Do we lose our ability to be scared?

Dr. B: When it comes to predictions, the future stuff? I got the 1-900 number to the psychic hotline. I don't know. See this is the problem with this stuff, with the predictions. We've never had so much on our soil. We had Gulf War '91, but we weren't really afraid here. We don't really know, but the fact is that on the anniversary of Sept. 11 we were supposed to be attacked and nothing happened. And then they were saying over the holidays, something would happen and it didn't happen. And now they said during this time, they thought going into Baghdad would create a trigger point. And that, so far, hasn't happened.

BT: You call that stuff "anticipatory anxiety." Is that unprecedented on this scale?

Dr. B: Except for the dentist's office, yeah. (laughing) Yeah. We had it for a while in every classroom in the country when Columbine hit, remember? They spent millions of dollars putting metal detectors up in all these damn schools. Not because they were told there was a threat, but because they were anticipating a threat.

BT: At what point can we make friends with our anxiety instead of letting it control out lives?

Dr. B: Make friends with it, eh? Well, it's not a question of making friends with it. It's a question of whether there's enough out there to reinforce our belief. That's like I said before. In Israel, you have a lot of little situations, so there's enough there to reinforce our belief that such things are true. If we don't have that much here, there will be a tendency not to because there's not enough in reality to keep us nervous even though the government will be saying watch out. There are people who have different thresholds. As you say, if there's an email warning that something is going to happen in downtown Manhattan, there are some people who are going to say, "The hell with it." We have a lot of people, also, who are not going to give in that are very fatalistic or they don't read.

BT: Ultimately, from a psychological perspective, has there ever been anything on par with September 11 here in America?

Dr. B: In my lifetime -- there are specific situations like riots in certain areas, natural disasters like earthquakes, tornados, floods, Oklahoma City -- but those are mainly geographical.

BT: What about the Cuban Missile Crisis? That was national.

Dr. B: Oh, I was a little kid then. I'm not a historian and I was like, 11, or 10. Yeah, about 11, when it happened. I wasn't that involved in stuff. I might have been a little worried. I remember it wasn't like a major thing for me. But that's because I wasn't involved in seeing if it was. For some people it was, because those people were building shelters and things like that. I can tell you one thing, during the 1960s, and even past that, there were these companies that would do surveys. And they would ask young people what they were afraid of and consistently nuclear war always came up first or second. As we went into the Cold War before the Berlin Wall came down, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, you'd ask young people what they were afraid of and nuclear war would drop to four or five or even six. Things came up like violence in our cities, or being afraid of being mugged, or economic issues. Now what we haven't seen, because it's too early, is asking these kids now what they're afraid of with all these biological threats and dirty nukes and bombs and North Korea rattling its sabers, one might think that those perceptions may change. I do all these radio shows and we talk to kids. I did a bunch of PSA's on kids and fears about the war. And you get these parents who have no idea how to talk to their 10 and eight and nine year olds because these kids that are 10 and 11 have a culture of videogames, of Columbine, of Oklahoma City, of shuttles blowing up, of this war -- and their parents grew up in the Disco Generation and have no idea of anything. They don't even have a sense of how to connect with these kids, because their reality is like 180 degrees different than the reality their kids face growing up.

BT: Are the kids better equipped than their parents, you think?

Dr. B: I don't know if they're better equipped because parents haven't even asked them if they're better equipped. They may be more frightened. My point is, these surveys that go up, how could we be better equipped to handle nuclear war? See that's the problem.

BT: On some level, the most interesting thing is this issue of whether people go out and find things to confirm the fears they already have, or whether they pick up the paper first and then get scared.

Dr. B: Which came first -- the chicken or the egg? We know one thing. People aren't really sure of what to do when bad things happen. And the reason we know that is from crazy behavior. About three weeks ago, you would not have been able to find a roll of duct tape in your area. That was a real serious thing, because what it showed is that people didn't know what the hell to do. But it was like, instead of running to the doctor and getting anti-anxiety pills, you went into the hardware store and got duct tape. (laughing) But it was the same thing! Reassurance. Tape your whole self up and feel better. I don't know. That was showing that people didn't know what to do and what was a normal reaction. They did something that everyone else did.

BT: That's pretty telling. That kind of mass panic. The thought that duct tape will save your life.

Dr. B: But see everyone started doing it to a point where you couldn't buy any more.

BT: You mention the war overshadowed the SARS fears at the beginning of this. Does anxiety put the blinders on us and maybe that we're missing information because we're too locked in on one thing?

Dr. B: It overshadowed it, but it didn't make it go away, did it? It's almost like, with kids. There are ways of dealing with anxiety and when you're a little kid you go to school and they have a fire drill and the first thing they teach you is that when the bell rings in a certain way, you run out of your class and even though you're scared as hell you have to practice doing the right thing. And the reason they practice, even when the bad thing isn't happening, is that when the bad thing does happen, people go on a sort of automatic pilot and they'll do that. Once society develops the right response that will alleviate the anxiety. Even in L.A., we've been through earthquakes before, so we know to do a few things. We bolt down our furniture, we have our water, we have our batteries, we have things like that. And if we can't get to the neighborhood because of a fire, we've arraigned to meet somewhere else. That doesn't make us less immune to having earthquakes but if the ground does start to shake, we at least have responses. They have drills. Every year in California, we have a duck-cover-hold drill. Well, we need to have a new drill. If you don't know what to do when something bad happens, it can create panic and people act crazy. But we don't have any automatic pilot programming for all this other stuff. No one has taught us what to do, except hoarding water and keeping some food in the house.

BT: And duct tape?

Dr. B: And duct tape.