IS THERE NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF?
By Rob Saint Laurent, M.Ed.
Since 2014, the Chapman University Survey on American Fears has taken the pulse of America's collective worries and anxieties regarding government, health, environment, disaster preparedness, and spiritual and personal matters. The online survey breaks down the percentage, gender, and party affiliation results and looks for trends and patterns. From a comprehensive list, Chapman researchers found the following top worries and anxieties of nearly 1,200 US adults surveyed in 2018.
While these fears and others are certainly justified (nearly 39 percent were fearful of a pandemic), the survey found significant percentages of very fearful people from a list of almost 100 items and points to a culture of fear in the US, say the researchers.
In the book Fear Itself – The Causes and Consequences of Fear in America, the researchers note that fear has “very real consequences in everyday life,” regardless of how it is portrayed. “Persistent fear negatively affects individuals’ decision-making abilities and causes anxiety, depression, and poor physical health. Further, fear harms communities and society by corroding social trust and civic engagement. Yet politicians often effectively leverage fears to garner votes, and companies routinely market unnecessary products that promise protection from imagined or exaggerated harms.”1
THE NATURE OF FEAR
The emotional reaction of fear serves a useful purpose when it is needed.
Arash Javanbakht and Linda Saab, Assistant Professors of Psychiatry at Wayne State University, explain in an article at The Conversation, our fear originates in the amygdala of the brain’s temporal lobe. Here, the stimulus we encounter is processed for how much it affects us, and it reacts whenever we see another person acting emotionally—especially in anger and fear. Likewise, if we encounter a threat stimulus like an angry wild animal, the amygdala is activated, and a fear response occurs that prepares the body for flight or fight: the brain goes on high alert, pupils and lung airways dilate, breathing and heart rate increase. At the same time, the brain’s prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, where rational thought takes place, allows us to discern how real the threat is.2
A common element to our fear response is feeling in control, as in knowing a threat is not real (example, a scary movie). Some of us enjoy the temporal thrill of being scared so long as we feel in control of the situation, and there is a balance between our emotional and thinking brains.
On the other hand, too much fear and anxiety can lead to significant disability and limit success and happiness. Nearly 25 percent of people experience some type of anxiety-related disorder over the course of their lives: phobias and social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, and PTSD. These typically begin in early life and, without early treatment, can derail a person’s life path.2-3
Writes neuropsychologist Theo Tsaousides, Ph.D. in Psychology Today, the chronic low-grade fear that many of us experience as feelings of daily worry and anxiety can, over time, subtly lead to serious physical and psychological harm. Some of this fear is taught to us, such as through cultural
norms (example, racial fears); some of it is learned, as through scary past experiences; and other fear is instinctive (feeling pain, for instance).4
HIJACKING THE MIND
You don’t need to be in a dangerous situation to feel fear, however.
Tsaousides explains that our fears are often imagined and can come about even when there is no immediate threat.
The advanced human mind is adept at imagining threats that don’t exist, called anticipatory fear, and fearing stimuli considered not scary, known as conditioned fear. This ongoing, low-grade, and aimless fear can leave a person with debilitating generalized anxiety.4
These kinds of fear can be easily weaponized through propaganda and disinformation.
Defined by Webster as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person,” propaganda misleads by playing to a person’s existing fears and emotions. This result can happen because we allow it; the information we hear confirms our existing beliefs (i.e., confirmation bias). As a result, we fail to seek the truth and stay within our information bubbles.
In the enlightening PBS special series “Hacking Your Mind,” we learn how online news and social media companies generate revenue by manipulating minds. For example, YouTube’s algorithms can determine their audience’s political leanings with uncanny accuracy, selecting viewing material that locks them within their echo chambers while cementing bias and producing an “us-versus-them” mentality.
There is also a deeper reason why propaganda works so well: fear inhibits our brain’s executive control network (involving the prefrontal cortex), allowing for critical, rational thought. Harvard Medical School Psychiatry Professor Andrew A. Nierenberg, MD, explains, “If I can make you afraid, I can suppress your ability to think straight.”5
This natural response is useful for escaping wild animals but problematic in an age of false and manipulative news and social media. By consuming a steady stream of fearful propaganda, people can become “primed” to fear where their fear response is amplified from living in a chronic fearful state (called fear potentiation). This fear can also be addictive, as doomsday “fear porn,” since many of the same chemicals that produce pleasure also produce fear.2
The Chapman survey found roughly 18 percent of respondents reporting fear of, and thus alertness to, being “fooled by ‘fake’ news.”
Warns Nierenberg, “If politicians can make you afraid, you should be afraid of the fear they can induce in your brain.”
OVERCOMING FEAR AND ANXIETY
Psychotherapy and medications are typically advised to help people overcome their fears. Online resources are also available, such as the well-regarded “fearof.net.”
Tsaousides, the author of Brainblocks: Overcoming the Seven Hidden Barriers to Success, discusses in a follow-up piece how we can leverage our fears to our advantage:6
Don’t be afraid of feeling fear. Tsaousides explains that fear is meant to warn and guide us toward achieving our goals, not scare us into stopping altogether. Being afraid of our fear will keep us trapped within our minds.
Know your fear. Fear is a complexity of physical, mental, and emotional factors that can be exaggerated by our thoughts. When anxiety happens, it is usually because of either biology (a hardwired fear of snakes, for instance), learned fear from a traumatic experience, or anticipated fear (worrying about future harm).
Build confidence. The more confident you feel in handling what scares you, the safer you feel in stepping out. It can come through gaining knowledge, skills, and experience.
Be prepared. Prepare for worst-case scenarios instead of worrying about them. It is better to be overprepared than to become paralyzed with the fear of not having prepared at all.
Tsaousides says, “fearless” people act despite their fear, but plan their actions and know when to advance and when to hold back, and which risks are worth attempting. They also know when to ask for help if their worry and anxiety become excessive.
For some, the belief in a “higher power, and having faith in a merciful Creator can prove to be an essential coping mechanism.
Chapman researchers found that nearly 50 percent of Americans are “afraid” or “very afraid” of the 2020 election result. By 2018, significant percentages of people were already fearful of “US involvement in another world war” (51.6 percent), “economic/financial collapse” (49.2 percent), and “widespread civil unrest” (43 percent).1
As we head into uncharted waters, we would do well to hold to our faith and subdue our fears—worrying never changed any outcome.
1. Chapman University. The Division on the Study of American Fears.
2. Javanbakht, A. & Saab, L. (2017, October 26). The science of fright: Why we love being scared. The Conversation.
3. Martin, P. (2003, September). The epidemiology of anxiety disorders: a review. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 5(3), 281-298.
4. Tsaousides, T. (2015, November 19). 7 Things You Need to Know About Fear. Psychology Today.
5. Nierenberg, A.A. (2018, July 13). Why Does Propaganda Work? Fear-Induced Repression of the Executive Control Brain Network. Psychiatric Annals, 48(7), 315.
6. Tsaousides, T. (2015, December 7). 7 Ways’ Fearless’ People Conquer Fear. Psychology Today.
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