WAR on our Peace of Mind WAR IN THE GULF


February 05, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

The nation is in the grip of a "collective anxiety attack," a New York psychologist says.

Not quite three weeks into the Persian Gulf war, we're worried, frightened, depressed and confused, experts say. Our need to know is urgent; we feel compelled to stay tuned to TV, not to see soaps or sitcoms but to watch the war in all its awful, bomb-blasting immediacy.

For people on the psychic edge, the war has been an added burden. New patients are showing up in psychiatrists' offices, and old patients are having worse complaints.

In Newport News, Va., an unemployed carpenter and war-news addict shot himself to death Friday, apparently convinced that the end of the world was imminent.

In Baltimore, one psychiatric patient admitted after a failed suicide attempt that he did it partly out of fear that he'd be called into military service.

Though most people don't go to those extremes, to some extent the whole country is experiencing a "collective anxiety attack," said Ellen McGrath, president of the division of psychotherapy of the American Psychological Association.

"There's more psychosomatic illness, more headaches, stomachaches, diarrhea, skin rashes than we saw a year ago," Dr. McGrath said. "The flu is worse this year; the immune system is depressed. The anxiety is permeating every area of life. There's more anxiety about the environment, the state of the economy, personal lives."

A survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press puts it into numbers:

Thirty-three percent of us are "not too happy" with things these days, up from 9 percent a year ago; 50 percent are "addicted" to media coverage of the war, and 50 percent are "depressed"' by what we see.

Mental health professionals say that's exactly how we ought to feel.

"Given what goes on in a war, people should be upset, angry, concerned and addicted to the news because they are trying to get information about something uncertain and unpredictable, and getting information makes people feel better," said Andrew Baum, Ph.D., professor of medical psychology and psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda.

"It is not abnormal; it is not clinical depression," agreed Dr. Thomas Krajewski, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

What we're experiencing, he said, is called an "adjustment disorder," which means we're reacting to major stress. When the stress is relieved, the symptoms should go away, too.

"Some people may need support to get through it, but may not need an anti-depressant and long-term therapy unless they have an underlying disorder," Dr. Krajewski said. "For most people, talking to families, friends, neighbors, the people in their church -- that's what they need at this point.

But some people do need professional help for their war anxiety.

"We are all seeing a mild increase in new patients," Dr. Krajewski said. "We're seeing people who had underlying problems, like anxiety or paranoia, that the war has surfaced. Since war seems to have accented the unpredictability of life, people with some baseline problem about the fragility of life are coming in."

And, according to Dr. Paul Hogsten, clinical instructor in psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical School, some people already in therapy are now saying they're "feeling nervous about what's going on or what might happen; they're TTC feeling guilty about not being able to do anything to help; they're feeling bad that young Americans will be killed."

No one knows right now whether many more of us will find our anxieties too severe to manage without professional help. This is the first war with so clearly delineated a start-up time, the first war in which first-month jitters on the home front have been surveyed, and the first war that we've been able to watch on TV, while it's happening.

Whether that TV viewing is good or bad probably depends on the individual, Dr. Hogsten said.

"For some people, hearing what's going on in great detail and learning as much as possible might reduce the level of anxiety," he said. "For others, hearing more and more of the details and seeing people actually injured can add to the anxiety."

Experts are divided about how the national psyche will respond if the war lasts longer than expected.

"At this point [the general anxiety] is within the normal range, but at the high end of normal," Dr. Mc- Grath said. "But if it is prolonged, it could precipitate neurotic symptoms."

But Dr. Baum said that given time, most people adapt to circumstances.

"I think you will have little blips [of heightened anxiety] as new things occur, but most people are able to deal remarkably well with almost anything," Dr. Baum said. "People will adapt to this, get used to it and integrate it into their normal lives. That doesn't mean they won't be concerned, but a lot of the symptoms will diminish."

How to calm yourself

To help manage war-related anxiety, Dr. Ellen McGrath advises:

1.Recognize your anxiety is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

2.Talk about it to family, friends, other people in the same situation; ask for help.

3.Offer help to others.

4.Participate in activities you enjoy.

5.Practice relaxation techniques.

6.Limit your exposure to TV reporting of the war.

7.Understand that how you think affects how you feel. Therefore, think positively. If you focus on the pessimistic, you are setting yourself up for stress.

8.Give children a lot of support. Encourage them to talk about their feelings. Limit their TV exposure to the war. Make them understand the war is far away.

For more information, write for the new brochure "Finding Calm in a Time of Crisis." Send a self-addressed stamped business-size envelope to the Practice Directorate of the American Psychological Association, 1200 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

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