Fear is an emotion, without which we could not survive. It alerts us to danger either real or imagined. Sudden exposure to a fearful circumstance triggers the so called “fight or flight” mechanism. Information about a threat to the organism is transmitted to the brain’s amygdala, which instantly sends signals to the hypothalamus. It responds by directing the adrenal glands to secrete more epinephrine (adrenalin) which prepares us to take action against the perceived threat. Our pupils dilate to enhance visual acuity, the heart rate increases to provide more blood to the brain and muscles, breathing quickens and the alveoli of the lungs open wider to absorb more oxygen. Muscles tense and the famous “cold sweat” appears as a preparation to prevent over heating during the anticipated battle or flight. Blood sugar levels increase to provide more energy, and there may be involuntary emptying of bowels and bladder (yes, the term “scared shitless” is for real).
The process is automatic, nearly instantaneous and completed even before a decision can be made as to how to respond to the threat. It can also be activated by fears for others, and most of us have undoubtedly experienced it when we are faced with a child running out in front of a moving automobile, and can even be provoked by imagined threats as in the case of those with phobias. Many seem to be born with a hair trigger for initiating the response and for many it erupts without any stimulus at all, which we call Panic Disorder. It is a common condition, said to account for 12% of Emergency room visits in the U. S.(link to article is here) Panic attacks frequently mimic the chest pain associated with heart attacks. Panic disorder is amenable to treatment and in my experience a detailed explanation of the mechanism involved is helpful, as most are relieved to find they are not suffering from a life-threatening condition.
The Physiological Response to Fear Was Key to Survival
If the threat persists the endocrine system takes over and the amygdala stimulates the pituitary gland to produce adrenocortical hormone (ACTH) which further activates the adrenal glands to produce epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. This mechanism served Joe Caveman well allowing him to either climb a tree or stick a spear into the saber tooth tiger confronting him, but modern-day Joe can neither kill nor run from a boss who he is convinced is determined to destroy him, leaving today’s Joe chronically stressed. Even minor stresses such as being stuck in traffic may lead to fears of missing an important appointment or attendance at his kid’s game. Those hormones so eloquently designed to save the lives of his ancestors were not designed for long term use and their presence at high levels is analogous to keeping an engine revved up for long periods of time while it sits at the curb. This phenomenon is felt to be a major contributor to a variety of medical problems, especially cardiovascular disease.
Existential fears are not new to our planet. The threat of natural disasters has always been present and persist to this day, but even though we now have a greater understanding of such phenomena, we are still helpless to deal with them in most cases, and find ourselves seeking divine protection from the big ones like earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, asteroids and the like. I have vivid memories of fears of World war II during which invasion of the west coast by Japan was felt to be imminent following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even in our small mid-western town there were designated bomb shelters as we were predicted to be next on Hitler’s list for invasion after they conquered England.
I also recall the tears in my Mother’s eyes as we watched my brother board the train headed for training camp only a little over a month after celebrating his 18th birthday. A few weeks later we received a call that he was “shipping out”, but he was not allowed to reveal his destination. Nevertheless, there was some relief since the call came from New Jersey indicating that he was likely headed for the European theater rather than the South Pacific from whence came endless horror stories. In the following months the fear for the family increased as more gold stars appeared in neighborhood windows, and the appearance of a Western Union messenger in the area would fill families with the worst kind of fear i.e. of reading “we regret to inform you…….”.
Since those early days of my life, in addition to a series of senseless wars, a a string of potentially apocalyptic events have occurred with some regularity with only brief periods in which there was nothing to fear on a grand scale. The development of the atom bomb was unique in that for the first time in history it gave the human race the power to destroy all life, and when Russia developed their version, backyard bomb shelters sprung up all over the place. The worst of those fears came close to realization with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In the 1970s, discovery of depletion of atmospheric ozone also resulted in fear of drastic consequences for mankind. At the same time, there were also warnings about climate change which went unheeded, but now sow fear in many of us for our children, and their children.
Fear & Pandemics
Fear is an unpleasant feeling. It is understandable that we prefer to put it off if the threat is not imminent. Such is the case of the source of our most recent global fear, i.e. the COVID-19 pandemic. Viruses were discovered at the end of the 19th century, and 100 years ago a viral pandemic killed an estimated one third of the world’s population. When I was a kid, polio was endemic, the world recently experienced a frightening Ebola epidemic, and for more than 50 years, scientists had been warning us of another pandemic. In spite of all that experience and warnings we were woefully unprepared for COVID-19. Now, more that 2.2 million people have died from it, and only the pandemic deniers are without fear. As I mentioned in my opening statement, fear is protective, and sadly those who deny put themselves and others at risk.
For many the fear of contracting the corona virus is superseded by more urgent fears such as: job loss, eviction, homelessness, or hunger. There is also the sad fact that a primary concern about closing schools means that without the benefit of school breakfast and lunch programs many kids will go hungry. It is estimated that 13 million kids arrive at school hungry and that 1 in five live with “food insecurity” (I wonder who is in charge of making up these kinds of meaningless terms, but I assume it means they don’t get enough to eat). Yep, here we are, living in the world’s richest country where we pay farmers not to plant crops, but can’t feed our children. Go figure!
The Fear Tactic: A Tried and True Motivator
Throughout the ages, leaders of all stripes have stoked fear in order to provoke the fight response as a motivator to followers not unlike the way our ex (thank God) president cranked up his followers on January 6 to storm the Capitol building. They obeyed their charismatic leader when he told them they must “fight like hell” to save their country [link to video of Trump at Pre-Riot Rally]. During the insurrection they were recorded chanting: “fight for Trump.” The mob was a disparate group. Among the most bizarre were the Q-Anon followers who were there in support of their leader (Trump), who they were convinced was destined to save the world from a secret cabal of Satan worshippers, who among other things, butchered children in order to drink their blood. There were also groups of white supremacists, fascists, and anarchists, along with misguided patriots who had been convinced that the election had been stolen and that our democracy was about to be taken over by socialists. Indeed, in subsequent interviews, some participants were proud of what they had done.
Regardless of motivation, the mob’s behavior confirms the presence of a great deal of anger. It raises the question as to from whence it came. Did it arise from fear? It does appear that they all were motivated by fear of something usually enhanced by misinformation. We still don’t understand much about mob behavior, but I suspect that it must be exhilarating to be able to express suppressed anger when in the midst of like-minded people. Why is it that when angry people congregate, anger tends to escalate, often ends in rage, and draws people into behaviors that they would never consider under ordinary circumstances? Are they drunk with the mob’s power, or is it the need to belong? Does group-think allow them to rationalize their behavior, or is it simply the thrill of acting out? With the crowd shouting “hang Mike Pence’’ and hunting for other members of congress by name, the results of the insurrection could have been disastrous. Unfortunately, the problem has not been resolved as polls indicate there are millions of citizens who still believe the election was fraudulent, the election was stolen, and vast left-wing conspiracies persist.
Fear: The Seed of Hatred
Fear leads to anger, but long-term anger results in hatred, undoubtedly the most destructive force of any society. We now have people in Congress who say they are afraid of suffering physical harm from their colleagues. Some object to the prohibition against carrying a gun during deliberations. They act as if it pains them to conform to the traditional decorum of the institution, and negotiation is a dirty word. We now have large numbers of members of both political parties, each concerned that the other is a threat to our democracy. The Trump followers who invaded the Capitol were determined to destroy democracy in order to save it. They continue to devour misinformation especially the “big lie” that Trump actually won the election.
In my early years I was also witness to other times in which right-wing political groups wrought havoc. In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy managed to instill fear into the citizenry with baseless allegations of communist spies having been recruited into important government and military positions. This was in the early days of TV and his hearings were widely watched. Many careers were destroyed as his House American Activities commission extended their “investigations” to include anyone of note, especially those in the arts since they were known to generally have liberal political views. Later the John Birch society, a political group organized by John Welch, produced all manner of big lies mostly consisting of a grand conspiracy to take over the American government, the most outrageous of which was the accusation that Eisenhower, widely hailed as the one most responsible for winning world war II was actually a communist agent. In both these cases the obvious goal was to create fear, but wiser heads in the Republican party intervened, whereas today’s Republican office holders fear going head-to-head with the exiled king Trump.
Courage: The Antidote to Fear
Courage occurs when values overcome fear. On January 6, 2021 small force of Capital Police courageously faced a mob of thousands in attempting to protect the occupants of the capital building. Two died and multiple others were seriously injured, yet the news of the day was replete with inferences that there may have been some who were complicit in the insurrection. To this day there has been very little mention of the other four souls known to have died that day as a result of anger gone wild. Are they not also victims? And what of those millions of others who have been convinced that the government of which they were once proud is now corrupt, and now fear the consequences?
Active Listening: The Antidote to Divisiveness
The saber-toothed tiger is long gone and we humans have gained dominion over all our enemies except for those darn viruses – things so small we can’t even see them. Now that we have destroyed most other critters, we are so secure in our dominance that we now try to save those who are left, and we find that our only enemies are each other. We talk a great deal about our divisiveness, but do very little to correct it. Back in the days when I was practicing my craft, I saw many couples who were deeply divided. In nearly all those cases it was apparent that they did not listen to each other. Oh yes, they heard each other loud and clear but did not listen. Listening involves more than words. To listen one must be attentive, and hear not only the words but the music i.e. the feelings. To acknowledge those feelings provides validation, a feeling which affirms one’s humanity. For example, to say to a true believer that he/she is crazy for believing the election was stolen is unlikely to be helpful to either party. On the other hand if one responds with something like: “I don’t believe it was rigged, but since you do I can understand that you are pissed off”, you might go on to a meaningful discussion. You might even find that person wanting to know why you were not a believer. God forbid, but you could even end up respecting or even liking each other.*
Since we all have our fears, I can’t finish this thing without once again mentioning my favorite quote on the subject of courage.
TO BE LOVED DEEPLY GIVES US STRENGTH, TO LOVE DEEPLY GIVES US COURAGE
P.S. This was a difficult paper to write because I continue to ignore the advice of my high school English teacher Miss Higgins who said that most authors select topics that are too broad in scope, and consequently do not do justice to their topic. Some of us are just slow learners
*Editor’s Note: I recall an interview with former FBI Director James Comey after the election and prior to the holidays. When asked for any advice regarding the holidays and interactions with those who were upset about the election results or even believed the false accusations that the election was rigged. I thought Comey’s statement was interesting and relevant to eshrink’s blog subject this week. Comey talked about people’s fear of being wrong…their fear of being duped. He talked about the countless cases he had seen where people had been defrauded of their life savings and/or their retirement by unscrupulous “investors” who promised their money was safe. To his shock, many of these victims would not only refuse to testify against the accused shyster, they sometimes would testify on the shyster’s behalf. Oftentimes, the fear of being wrong or the fear of being “taken” trumps everything else. Victims of these crimes had a belief that they could “see through” a fraudster and they had a deep seated belief that the shyster was a good business person. His advice was to understand the person’s thinking from the lens of fear.