Fear for Sale by Angela Rieck

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Fear.  

Politics depends on it.  The conservative news stations sell it.  PBS and NPR give it away. Political Action Committees and Nonprofits thrive on it. Special interest groups milk it. 

It overwhelms us. It causes us to lose our ability to process rationally.

Why? 

We know that fear causes an automatic reaction by the limbic system. The thalamus, amygdala, cortex and hippocampus set up fear pathways.  Once the pathways are in place, our brain short-circuits more rational processing paths and reacts immediately. In this overactive state, we perceive and store events in biased fashion. 

Our world becomes a much scarier place. Our ability to regulate emotions, read nonverbal cues, and process information rationally is diminished. 

Continuous exposure to fear weakens our long-term memory and causes chronic feelings of anxiety; fatigue, chronic depression, accelerated aging and even premature death. 

But we don’t have to accept it. We can learn to control our response to it.  

That is not what special interest groups want, so they continue to ratchet up the fear, because it brings ratings, funding, votes.  

But what it really does is take away our humanity and makes us reactionary.

For example, I watch nature documentaries, but it seems that at the end of every show, I am bombarded with fear—extinction, elimination of environment due to climate, poachers, corrupt government.  

Ratcheting up this fear desensitizes me to the real challenges that we face. Climate change is real, there is no longer any debate about it, but it is also true that scientists are rewarded for attaching phenomena to global warming.  They are featured in documentaries, have papers published, receive necessary funding. Yet the trend to blame unusual events on global warming diminishes the very real threats that exist.  

On the conservative side, one of the most egregious simplifications is blaming immigration for the loss of jobs. It flies in the face of the facts.  Wall Street, our tax code, executive compensation, politicians, and an absence of business conscience all conspired to offshore millions and millions of jobs.  Blaming it on an easy victim doesn’t fix it, it only heightens our fear responses and prevents us from addressing root causes.

What do we do?  We have several choices. First, we can stop listening to fear-based stories, but that could cause us to ignore serious issues.  A better, more complicated option is to “feel the fear,”question the story (“is it accurate, is it an exaggeration, is it conjecture?”), search for the truth and make a plan to address it.  

For example, I am concerned about climate change.  I cannot fix it. But I can utilize the Buddhist principle that “a jug fills drop by drop.” So the little things that I CAN do both reduce my fear and help the environment. I can vote for candidates who prioritize climate change. I can turn off a light (that might not make a big difference, but what if everyone did it?). I now make weekly goals to help the environment.  This week my goal is to drive 10 miles less, turn up my thermostat, buy organic foods. Little things, yes, but imagine if everyone did them?

We cannot predict the future. But if we live in fear of it, we will not be able to address it. We will only become more polarized, less objective and continue down the dismal path that we are following.

Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.

Letters to Editor

  1. Anne Worthington says

    Thanks for this article. It’s an elegant analysis of fear’s debilitating aspects. I especially like the author’s suggestion that although one person can’t solve climate change, each of us individually can make a difference in many small ways. I do turn off lights, recycle and generally use it up, wear it out or do without!

  2. Susan Peel says

    Such vitally important issues, and so timely, very clearly laid out. Thank you.

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