10/10/16: on fear–no, wait, sorry, anxiety

This week, Rolling Stone absolutely kills it with an October 20, 2016 article from Neil Strauss on “The Age of Fear.” In short, the article asks how it is that Americans can be living in the statistically safest place at the safest time in human history and still be so scared, to which my general sense is that it’s because of how well off we are–i.e., those who have much to lose are constantly in fear of losing it. Rather than generalizing, however, Strauss sticks to facts and possible symptoms, speaking with neurobiologists about the way in which the brain, a “stress-reactive machine,” can be easily manipulated into fear. One author calls this “amygdala hijacking,” in which inflammatory content bypasses the logical parts of the brain and attacks the emotional part. Another suggests that this isn’t fear at all so much as anxiety: fear is an immediate response to a clear and present threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of the future. The former is hard to manipulate, although it can be triggered (by scary movies, haunted houses, etc.), but the latter is dealing with uncertainty, and while a physical assailant may be dispatched, the imaginary monsters unsettlingly persist.

Perhaps that’s why politics is so scary: when running for office, a candidate can do nothing but talk about the future, about the things that might happen, and it plays to their strengths to get people nervous about what will happen if they aren’t elected. In many ways, politicians are running a psychic protection racket: “Nice country, it would be a terrible thing if something were to happen to it.”

We might dismiss these concerns at first, but they’re soon echoed and amplified by the media’s rhetoric and potent, image-heavy advertisements: they become impossible to ignore, and because they’re based on hypothetical futures, impossible to disprove. To escape, we perhaps attempt to tune out the “other” side, at which point we run into the danger of what social psychologists call the “law of group polarization,” which, as Strauss suggests, leads us not only to have “stronger opinions but with less empathy for those with contrary views.”

One day, you find that statistics are unimportant, because “our fears are not logical.” Even though suicides, overdoses, and car accidents claim over 300 people a day (with thousands more due to preventable deaths stemming from smoking, obesity, and more), we fear external forces with very low probabilities. Perhaps that’s because we do not want to take on the honest responsibility of being the biggest threat to our own safety, or perhaps, as Strauss continues, it’s because of “probability neglect,” the situation in which people who are “emotionally stirred by something, especially something they can vividly imagine” (thanks, dramatizations and your stupid confirmation bias!), they fear it no matter how unlikely. Strauss demonstrates this by citing a 1993 study of this breakdown in logical processing: “People were willing to pay more for flight insurance to protect them from terrorism than they were to pay for flight insurance covering ‘all causes.'” That’s why Homeland Security gets so much money and the Affordable Care Act keeps facing repeal.

Another powerful psychological effect? Loss aversion: “The idea that some people are more fearful about losing something than they are excited about acquiring something equivalent–and often, something even greater.” It doesn’t matter how xenophobic or misogynistic Trump gets: to a certain indoctrinated percentage of the population, he represents safety from the imaginary gun-grabbing Clinton. This is especially true, according to Strauss’s interviews, when it comes to those who have very little agency. Those who don’t have control become depressed and, as a result, tend to yield even more control to those who claim to have a way out for them–a vicious cycle in which people end up voting for decades against their interests. The only solution, according to one sociologist, is to “learn to have a degree of acceptance around uncertainty and ambiguity, learn to feel comfortable with change, and seek to understand things you may be afraid of rather than withdrawing from them.” That means not retreating into the safety of a Facebook or media bubble in which you hear only what is most agreeable to you.

If doing this for the sake of your country isn’t enough, perhaps consider doing it for your own health, and I’m not speaking solely of that agency-gathering anti-depressant. Diving back into Strauss’s findings, one of the scientists at New York University’s Center for Neural Science notes that this sort of persistent anxiety can not only rewire the brain, but wither and tumesce certain portions of it:

If you look at the cellular level of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus–the thinking and memory forming parts of the brain–you can actually see them shutting down… and the amygdala actually gets bigger. In the process, attributes such as conscious decision-making, risk-taking, exploratory activity and logical thinking are adversely affected.


That right there is a clear and present danger worth being afraid of, so stop being so impulsively, recklessly anxious about all of these lies, do a little personal research, engage with your fellow Americans, and live your life as we all ultimately must: one day at a time.

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