by Debra Kissen, PhD

Debra Kissen, PhDEbola: “Can I get it from a bowling ball …from shaking hands …from mosquitoes?” How can I quiet my anxieties about this disease?

All the experts say it is extremely unlikely that you'll get Ebola. So why isn't this reassuring enough? Why can’t you breathe a sigh of relief knowing there’s only a teeny-tiny chance of contracting this disease?

Because if you’re living with anxiety, it’s not enough to hear about a low probability. You want to hear a guarantee of safety.

Uncertainty and Fears

And what feels more uncertain than the transmission of germs? They can’t be seen, tasted, smelled, or felt. They’re invisible invaders who can strike at any time. They’re biological terrorists that we can’t be protected from all the time. We can take appropriate precautions and do all the right things, and still they may find an entry point.
A client recently talked to me about her Ebola fears, wishing instead they were about discrete catastrophic events, like armed gunmen or natural disasters. Then she could tell if a dreaded event was happening.

Also triggering Ebola for the anxious mind is the idea of quarantine — being separated from loved ones, trapped behind plastic sheets. I don’t think there’s a more terrifying concept for the human mind than being in isolation, out of reach of the warmth and affection of others.

Ebola provides the perfect storm for anxiety triggers. First, safety cannot be guaranteed. Second, there are no clear rules of the road, no absolute guarantees of safety. Third, Ebola brings to mind images of isolation. And its near-constant news coverage provides nonstop updates on this devastating disease.

Anxiety Warning Signs

Here are some signals that contamination and germ-related fears are entering the zone of an anxiety disorder:

•    Frequent thoughts about germs and contamination leave you feeling anxious and distressed.
•    Frequent thoughts about germs and contamination affect your functioning and make it difficult to complete required life tasks.
•    You spend an excessive amount of time thinking about germs and contamination and engaging in behaviors to prevent the spread of germs. (Excessive is relative, but if you spend an hour or more each day on germ prevention and you don’t work for the CDC, you are probably in the anxiety disorder zone).

Although we can’t protect ourselves from Ebola and other infectious diseases with 100 percent certainty, we can protect ourselves from living a life plagued with anxiety and despair.  If your contamination and germ-related fears are becoming excessive and negatively affecting your satisfaction in life, you can find effective treatment out there to get you “unstuck” from these thoughts and back into your life.

More About Ebola


Debra Kissen, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, is the Clinical Director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago. She has a special interest in mindfulness-based treatment for anxiety disorders.

In her practice, she provides cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to children, adolescents and adults with a focus on anxiety and stress-related disorders, including OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobias, separation anxiety disorder, compulsive skin picking, and trichotillomania.