Sometimes a sneeze is just a sneeze

Recent research has shown that everyday behavior, such as a person sneezing, can cause others to overreact out of basic fear, even for unrelated health threats. 

“Physical symptoms are cues that tell us whether our health is good or endangered in some way,” says Dr. Deborah Wiebe, a health psychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “These cues or signals are very important to keeping us healthy, but they are also easy to misinterpret and are easily influenced by social context.” 

Researchers found that a nearby sneeze can raise fear of health threats not linked to germ transfer, such as having a heart attack before the age of 50 or dying from a crime or accident.

Dr. Wiebe says others’ symptoms raise awareness of our own vulnerability and activate both conscious and unconscious fear and sense of danger.

“When someone overreacts to another person’s behavior, inherently they are just protecting their physical well-being,” she says.

So how do we not overreact?

“Knowing steps to minimize danger of catching a disease – such as washing your hands or taking vitamins – often leads people to behave more rationally and less emotionally,” Dr. Wiebe says.

Visit www.utsouthwestern.org/mentalhealth to learn more about UT Southwestern’s clinical services for mental health, including psychiatry.

Media Contact: LaKisha Ladson

Return to January 2010 News Tips

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