Feature Archive

Healthy Escapes

 When the going gets tough, the tough get going ... to the circus, the movies, even the backyard. A little diversion into fantasy helps keep us going strong.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Is it OK during difficult times to lose ourselves in basketball tournaments, zone out to "Survivor," or just tend our gardens? Lots of families are heading to the circus or the movies rather than sitting through the news of the day. But when the going gets tough, should we feel guilty about escaping from reality -- at least for a short while -- or is it healthy to stop and smell the roses?

"The news is really painful these days, and people are scared and people are stressed," Nadine Kaslow, MD, tells WebMD. She is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and also chief psychologist at the Grady Health System, both in Atlanta.

"You talk to families with teenage kids, and they're worried their child is going to get drafted," says Kaslow. "They're afraid to let children watch the news."

Finding something in which to immerse ourselves -- escaping our worries -- is a means of coping, a natural adaptation in times of turmoil, Kaslow explains. "People are desperately seeking more positive things in the world. People also have a need to see more positive images."

Kristin Kassaw, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, agrees.

"Right now, people need a diversion from reality," Kassaw tells WebMD. "I felt very disturbed seeing "Gangs of New York" -- it was extremely violent, and violence is something people don't want to be faced with right now. In the back of our minds, we know that somewhere in the world, someone's brothers, sons, spouses may face violence."

"Reality TV is about the only reality people can deal with right now," says Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Yale University. "People are scared. All of my kids' field trips have been cancelled, delayed till safer times. We all want to safeguard ourselves against potential threats. Sept. 11 caught us so off guard. We're feeling vulnerable anywhere, anytime."

To be emotionally healthy, people actually need a certain amount of denial in their lives, says Kassaw. An example: "People with cancer have to have a little bit of denial of the severity of their illness in order to have hope, in order to continue on."

Escapism and denial are problematic when they prevent people from acting in their own best interest, she adds. "But when denial guides actions and impairs our judgment, then it's a problem. When it gets to the point that someone just assumes a son won't be hurt in the Persian gulf -- and buys him a new car for a homecoming present -- that's a problem, Kassaw tells WebMD.

"Anything in the extreme is negative," Kaslow adds. "There should be a limit to how much TV both adults and kids watch. Social interaction, hobbies, sports, arts are also important. Parents need to monitor what their children are watching. They also need to control it for themselves. Chronic couch-potato escapism is not healthy."

"Dwelling on fears when you can't do anything about the situation isn't healthy," Prigerson tells WebMD. "Being paralyzed by fear, not being able to function, is not healthy."

Children whose sleep is disturbed -- who have nightmares about terrorists -- need conversations to reassure them that, of all the billions of people, the chances are extremely low that something is going to happen to them, says Prigerson.

"I think lot of kids are upset after Elizabeth Smart went back home," she adds. "My daughter was up all night after that happy ending. There's the thought -- if horrible things can happen to her, some guy coming in with a knife and abducting her --there's a sense that can happen to any child. And that's very unsettling."

By all means, take the kids to the circus or the movies or whatever feels right, Prigerson advises. "But I also think its being overprotective if you don't have a conversation with your children about major world events that affect their lives. I think kids would benefit from understanding that world events could affect them. You don't want to foster fears, so you're nipping them in the bud."

Escapism is self-soothing -- and is almost part of our national character, she muses. "It allows us to get on with lives, which is part of the American ethic. We showed that Sept. 11 wasn't going to get us down, that we were not going to let terrorists win. We're going to do what we do, be fun-loving Americans."

Just don't take it to the extreme -- with binge drinking, taking other big risks. "That's obviously dangerous and not healthy. You can't just 'live for today, because we might die tomorrow.' But if you're being safe, you're fine."

Published March 21, 2003

SOURCES: Nadine Kaslow, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and chief psychologist at the Grady Health System, both in Atlanta, Ga. Kristin Kassaw, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Yale University.

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