If you're troubled about the threat of an avian flu pandemic, you're not alone. While the abundance of news coverage has helped raise awareness of avian flu and a potential pandemic, reports on the disease's most sensational aspects have obscured some of the most important facts.

For example, it is currently very difficult to contract avian flu, also known as H5N1, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the past, most cases have involved direct contact with infected birds, and nearly half of the patients recovered from the illness.

What concerns scientists and health officials is that the current avianflu strain could evolve into a more contagious form and become more widespread. Taking prudent steps for "worst-case" scenarios puts governments, organizations, and health researchers in the best position to limit the spread of the disease, and get help to those who will need it the most.

Worry about avian flu

Unfortunately, news about avian flu may also give rise to feelings of stress, anxiety, and fear of the future. Such responses are understandable, given the disease's uncertainties, and the incomplete or over-dramatized nature of many stories.

Some people fear that the disease will result in quarantines. Unlike the mass, hospital-like approach used during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the approach for avian flu will more likely involve having people stay at home and away from large gatherings. This step would likely be imposed only in limited areas and for brief time periods.

Although avian flu is a threat that should be taken seriously, it should not control your life. There are many simple and effective ways to manage your fears and anxieties. Many of them are essential ingredients for a healthy lifestyle; adopting them can help improve your overall emotional and physical well-being.

What you can do

  • Keep things in perspective. Public health agencies around the globe have already invested vast resources in analyzing avian flu and predicting where the virus may appear next. They are also refining plans to limit the extent of an outbreak. Limit worry and agitation by lessening the time you and your family spend watching or listening to upsetting media coverage.
  • Stay healthy. A healthy lifestyle-including proper diet and exercise-is your best defense against any threat. Adopting hygienic habits such as washing your hands regularly will also minimize your exposure to all types of germs and disease sources. A healthy body can have a positive impact on your thoughts and emotions, enabling you to make better decisions and deal with avian flu's uncertainties.
  • Have a plan. Recent weather-related events have illustrated the importance of emergency preparedness. These same steps can help you and your family prepare for any avian flu outbreak. They include stocking up on non-perishable foods as part of your regular grocery shopping, establishing an emergency family communication plan, exploring options for working from home and caring for sick family members, etc. Knowing in advance that you are prepared can lessen your anxiety.
  • Keep connected. Maintaining social networks and activities can help maintain a sense of normalcy, and provide valuable outlets for sharing feelings and relieving stress. This may also be an ideal time to become more involved with your community. Some of the most inspiring survival stories from Hurricane Katrina spotlighted times when people came together before and after the disaster.
  • Get the facts. Gather information that will help you accurately determine your risk so that you can take reasonable precautions. Find a credible source you can trust such as your physician, a local or state public health agency, or a national resource such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Focus your Internet searches to reputable sites such the World Health Organization, the US government, and the American Red Cross.
  • Seek additional help. Individuals who feel an overwhelming nervousness, a lingering sadness, or other prolonged reaction that adversely affects their job performance or interpersonal relationships should consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers can help people deal with extreme stress. These professionals work with individuals to help them find constructive ways to manage adversity.

Thanks to psychologists Raymond F. Hanbury, PhD, ABPP, Richard A. Heaps, PhD, ABPP; Bruce Nystrom, PhD; H. Katherine O'Neill, PhD; Suzan M. Stafford, EdD; and John R. Tassey, PhD who assisted with this article.

Updated July 2012