Dr Sarah Edelman is a clinical psychologist, author and trainer. She worked for many years as a research psychologist and lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney. These days, in addition to her private practice Sarah conducts training programs for psychologists, medical practitioners, industry groups and the general public. She is a frequent guest on 702 ABC radio, and has contributed many articles in professional journals and in the mainstream media. Her book, “Change Your Thinking” (ABC Books) is a best seller in the self-help genre.
She wrote the original of this piece as a comment on the recent Four Corners program ‘Against the Wind’. This is a slightly edited version of that original. Dr Edelman did the editing.
For any psychologist who specialises in anxiety disorders it is totally unsurprising to see individuals who are stressed and fearful of the wind turbines also experiencing a range of physical symptoms. Our brain is designed to focus on threat. Once we perceive that something bad, dangerous or threatening is in our lives (or in our immediate environment) we become hypervigilant and aroused. People who are in an anxious state typically experience high startle reflex, insomnia, headaches, nausea, twitches, electrical sensations and various other symptoms. I see them every day. The symptoms described by the affected individuals in the program are very typical somatic symptoms associated with hypervigilance. Some, like the man who described “a sensation of his heart wanting to leap out of his chest, and just feeling as if he was going to – about to die”, are experiencing panic attacks.
While some people suggest that these individuals are just noticing random symptoms that we all experience, and attributing them to the wind turbines, in my view the individuals interviewed on the 4 Corners were clearly anxious and distressed, and were experiencing genuine physical symptoms. Anxiety related symptoms are not imagined – they are real. When these individuals leave the area they feel better because they feel safe – hypervigilance drops and nervous arousal subsides. However this is not the same thing as the biological pathways that are being proposed by those who claim a direct causal link between turbines and ill-health.
While somatic (anxiety-related) symptoms are associated with nervous arousal and lots of unpleasant symptoms they are rarely associated with serious medical illness, which is why Prof. Wittert’s study found no increase in the prescription of medications for people living in the area. However in vulnerable individuals ongoing anxiety may lead to depression, which is a medical illness, and may be seen in future studies of this population. Further, even if not dangerous, the symptoms are unpleasant and distressing, particularly when individuals believe they reflect serious dangers to their health. Unsurprisingly, insomnia is one of the commonly reported symptoms.
I don’t have a strong view about the politics of wind farms, however I do think the scare mongering that is occurring (and especially involving children in the scare campaign) is unhelpful. It perpetuates the problem by feeding the fear that gives rise to anxiety and somatisation in susceptible individuals. I can guarantee that if you can remove threat perceptions, the symptoms will disappear. However banishing fear is a tall order, especially when beliefs are so strong and emotions are hot.