On Avoiding Hysteria in Hysterical Times

On Avoiding Hysteria in Hysterical Times

By Don Hall

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a disorder characterized by constant worrying, stress, anxiety and fear, without any real cause behind these feelings. Whether it's worrying about money or loved ones, if you have GAD, you may expect disaster at every turn. The anxiety can get so pervasive that it interferes with your daily functioning. 

GAD is extremely prevalent, with over 4 million Americans affected each year.

Mental health researchers have found that trauma in childhood can increase your risk of developing GAD. Physical and mental abuse, the death of a loved one, desertion, divorce or isolation can all be contributing factors. Using everyday addictive substances like caffeine can also heighten feelings of worry or nervousness.

Some scientists believe anxiety is a learned behavior so that if you have a parent who is always anxious, you emulate and mirror that behavior as well. Poor early social skills and awkward encounters can also shape long-lasting anxiety.  

During severe periods of stress, the potential for developing anxiety conditions is increased. Prolonged stress is also a common time when GAD first appears. For many people, they discover they have GAD while holding a job they cannot stand or while going through a nasty divorce. 

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We live in times of manufactured hysteria.

Commerce has driven an awful lot of it — advertisers want us to feel fear and anxiety in order to want to buy products from their clients. Arms manufacturers want us to fear the world of the Other so we buy guns and planes and drones and bombs in order to feel safe. The news media pushes hysteria like it was crack cocaine and unless everyone of us is lighting up that glass pipe, they aren't appropriately informing us.

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A 10-minute exposure of CNN on any given day regales us with graphics and music bumps and headlines designed to instill nothing but dread and apprehension. It's like a dark, hugely obese opera star singing "The Wooooorld is Coooooooming to an Eeeeeeeeeeeeeend!" FOX News thrives on this.

Panic and outrage have become our default settings.

The way out of this mass-induced hysteria over things that are unlikely to require either the extreme fight or flight response is to reframe your experiences as soon as you feel that queasy, gut-wrenching panic begin to set in.


"I think you might have bed bugs," she said. She had spent the night and when I took her home, she had gone back to sleep. When she woke up, she had welts all over back and arms. It seemed unlikely to me that that had come from my bed because I never had any bug bites. I slept in that bed every night and no bites, so I figured they must have come from someplace else.

I did a quick inspection and saw nothing that aroused my suspicion, so I told her it must be her bed that contained the nasty little indestructible bugs.

Months later, as I was lying in bed watching Netflix on my iPad, I noticed a bug. Crawling on my sheets. I killed it and then realized it might be a fucking bed bug. I shot up and went to the internet to confirm it. This little beastie was a bed bug. I pulled off my sheets, I got out a flashlight and inspected the bed with laser-like focus. I was up all night, reading about the signs of infestation, the horror stories of people having to burn their homes to escape them, selling children, changing their legal names and setting up new identities to run from these tiny fuckers.

I had bed bugs.

And the internet-fueled hysteria started to mount. How? I'm a generally clean person! My apartment is clean. The people I have in my apartment, though infrequent, seem clean. What the fuck? What do I do? Burn my stuff? Get all new clothes? Run? Go find an abandoned prison and shack up there with other survivors of these monsters? I felt a sick panic in my gut. I didn't have the money to replace everything and I just signed another year's lease on my apartment.

I slept fitfully. Went to work and calmed myself. I did a little bit more research. And I realized that I had been through worse than this. When our theater was overrun by rats and then, after I killed the rats, flies from the dead rat bodies in the walls and then fleas in the theater seats? That was fucking worse and I solved that one. I had to reframe the situation away from the manufactured hysteria surrounding the words "Bed Bug."

I worked on a horse ranch as a teenager. I've lived out in the country. My folks live out in the middle of a lake community where the wasps are thumb-sized. I read everything I could about bed bugs. I read that they have nothing to do with living in a dirty home. That they (mostly) carry no diseases. That they suck blood and have sticky eggs and can survive almost a year without a parasitic host to feed on.

Bed bugs are simply mosquitos without wings that can't be killed by pesticides. If I realized I had mosquitos I would be annoyed, not panic stricken.

And the panic subsided.  REFRAME.  REASSERT.  Control the REACTION.

Step #1
Get rid of the bed. Take it — headboard and all — and dump it. Mark it "BED BUGS — Dispose." Call the Streets and Sanitation Department. Give them a heads up. Not a bad thing, really. I've had that bed for almost 13 years. The mattress has both bed bugs and memories in need of disposing.

Step #2
Finetooth comb the bedroom. Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. Stem to stern. Get rid of pillows. Dry the fuck on high heat all my linens, blankets and clothing. Do this to every room in the apartment.

I slept on my couch (which is actually a day bed). I meticulously checked it every time I went to bed. Take it apart, put it back together.

Then I watched to see if they came back.

And they did. But only in the bedroom and only on the walls near the ceiling. No panic. Like a bed bug Sherlock Holmes, I started looking. I talked to an exterminator. I talked to the maintenance guy in my building. The exterminator came to inspect my place (for an off-the-books $50). He confirmed that they were not residing in my place and told me I could have probably saved the bed but that it was probably best to get rid of it. And a theory is born.

The bed bugs were coming from the apartment next to mine. They had bed bugs and fumigated. The bugs just travelled over to my place through cracks in the wall. The fumigation did not work in the other apartment. They still had them. I could have hired the exterminator but it would have just shifted the goddamn things back and forth and potentially cost thousands of dollars.

So it was in the hands of my building's management company.

In the meantime, I had my routine. I checked all the spots for bugs. If I saw one I squashed it. I bought an air mattress because I wasn't getting another bed until either I was convinced the problem was solved or I moved.

They came back. I moved. No more bed bugs.

I've read the hysterical stories online about bed bugs destroying lives. About people getting rid of everything they own to escape them. I also remember when I was a kid and my mom battled these two-inch long water bugs that would crawl all over our apartment. And horseflies the size of quarters out in the country. And David Jacks and I recklessly taking tree branches and swatting hornet nests and running from them.

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Reframe. Control the reaction. Get the job done. No manufactured hysteria driven by unreasoning fear or disgust.

We live in times of manufactured hysteria. We all have the power to control it.

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