With ever increasing anthrax cases reported in the past two weeks, we have become a nation hypersensitive to the presence of powder. Substances such as chalk dust, cornstarch, and baby powder, formerly considered helpful if not benign, are suddenly regarded with suspicion.

Although the actual number of people exposed to anthrax is small compared to the numbers who die every day from traffic accidents or AIDS, the perceived uncontrollability of bioterrorism has made everyone fearful.

Last week a box of textbooks containing a powdery substance was unpacked at a nearby elementary school. Students were taken from the classroom, which was immediately sealed, and the suspicious box, along with the students’ backpacks, was sent to Hartford for further analysis. It was eventually confirmed that the publisher had just used cornstarch to keep the pages in the books from sticking.

This case shows how our nation might be on the verge of collective panic. We are beginning to see the possibility of anthrax exposure everywhere. The unsettling conditions we have experienced over the past month have provided the perfect setting not only for the development of group panic but also mass hysteria.

Mass hysteria is defined as the collective occurrence of a set of physical symptoms and related beliefs that suggests an organic illness but that actually has a psychological cause.

Mass hysteria occurs during times of social tension or in situations where a threatening element is present that is perceived as mysterious and unpredictable — something such as anthrax. Hysterical contagion was first recorded during the Middle Ages when Europe was experiencing periods of famine, plague and social oppression. In Italy and Germany, whole groups of individuals would display unusual dancing manias that were attributed to the bite of the tarantula. In rural areas, there were outbreaks of lycanthropy — a condition in which people believed they were possessed by wolves.

Although mass hysteria is less frequent in modern times, it still exists.

In 1992, in a Florida summer program, one girl complained that her sandwich didn’t “taste right,” and within forty minutes, 63 children fell “ill” with nausea, tingling sensations, headaches and cramping. An inspection of the food revealed no bacteria or pesticides; it was decided that the symptoms had a psychological origin and had been reinforced by the adults’ suggestions that perhaps the food they were eating was tainted.

The majority of cases of mass hysteria in modern times have occurred in school settings, including at universities. At one Midwestern university, 69 female students reported being “ill” in a residential dining hall after one student reported seeing a dusty substance in the air, and another student reported feeling ill.

In this case also, no evidence of toxins was found, and it is believed that a week of stifling hot weather had made the students vulnerable to the suggestion of illness. One way to prevent the development of mass hysteria or panic is to learn the facts about anthrax and to evaluate critically any rumors or statements that we hear.

We need to think about the source of any statements and question sweeping generalities or anonymous sources. Perhaps now more than ever, the thing we have to fear most is fear itself, and the crippling effects it might have on us.

Kristi Lockhart is a lecturer in the Psychology Department.