Paranoia Strikes Deep!!
Fear needs no formal introduction. It is universally understood from the minute the pacifier is taken from our baby mouths and we are thrown into the fires of life to navigate the journey — alone — so very alone. Doesn’t matter who you are, if you are human then you’re no stranger to fear, even if in this very moment you are in a safe place among loved ones, financially stable with a belly full of food, and your toes are toasty warm on a cold night.
Don’t get too cozy…. danger lurks. Fear looms.
Sure, you can banter with me to say that fear serves us well. Fear keeps us from dying as we bumble along, honoring fear to avoid dark streets, snakes and bugs, thunder and lightning, strangers, germs, week-old leftovers in the refrigerator, among a whole host of scary things. But on a larger scale, fear can influence groups, communities, countries, even the world. It can consume us, depress us, lead to poor decision-making, and make us prone to knee-jerk reactions… the list goes on. In its worst form, fear can incite hatred, violence, and set back the progression of the species.
I’m deeply concerned about what I see… a growing population paralyzed by threats (real or perceived) that affect civility, peace of mind, and overall quality of life.
Look around. Read the headlines of world news on any given day. Count the number of articles that evoke positive emotions and compare that with the number of articles that impart a sense of fear. As of this writing, here are the headlines on page 1 of Google’s World News today:
It’s worse than I thought!!
The above list is a complete and unedited first-page list. It’s worse than I thought — not one article reflects a positive or neutral title. It makes me wonder how this sits with the average person whose first activity of the day is casually surfing daily news while sipping a morning cup of coffee.
“Activities we engage at the start of our day definitely impact our mood,” explains Doreen Lewis, PhD, an American psychology researcher. “Most people are thinking about the day ahead, what they need to accomplish, and, basically, focus more upon the future than the present moment. If all we see and hear is bad news, and the future doesn’t look bright, it can affect the ability to stay focused and positive under a cloud of gloom and doom.”
Lewis cited recent research conducted by the American Psychological Association (2019) which showed that the highest-ranking stressor is the fear of the future of nation, with 63% reporting it as stressor. “I can only imagine the same is true in every corner of the world’s geography,” she said, “especially with such division on politics and ideology these days.”
I consulted Dr. Lewis recently to glean psychological theories about fear and some of the recent research on fear’s impact on society. Lewis provided me much of the backdrop of this article. The findings inspire me to begin work on further studies and, very possibly, the development of a documentary to more deeply explore beyond the science and history that lend themselves to explain fear…
Biology and Psychology of Fear
Fear is normal, primitive, and helps us survive. On instinct, animals and humans react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline pumps through the body in the face of fear, and we instinctively have what’s called, a fight or flight response, described by Walter Cannon in the 1920s, in which we decide to run away from harm, or stand and fight. Physically, the amygdala (which is the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory) is activated and sends signals to the frontal cortex, which is responsible for analyzing and interpreting data. Then the brain evaluates the threat, sparking the primitive response to flee (avoid) or fight.
Developmental psychologists and researchers address the science of fear across the lifespan and have found that fear decreases in prevalence and intensity with age and that specific fears are transitory in nature (Gullone, 2000). Also, what we fear is age-relative.
Theorist Jean Piaget (1936) posited that infants become attached to their caregiver (usually the mother) and develop separation anxiety (i.e., fear of others), which resolves over time. Preschoolers show a fear of darkness, being along, and of animals, imagined threats (e.g., monsters), supernatural events, and injury. Social situations can be scary across a lifetime. Death and dying is a fear theme seen at all ages.
Some of which we fear is learned behavior, according to science. Cognitive theorists consider how individuals develop fear or anxiety is based upon thoughts (sometimes dysfunctional or maladaptive), which leads to emotions. Whereas, according to social learning theory, we are conditioned to fear (and overcome a fear) based on exposure to a perceived threat. The influence of early teachings (parents, religion, culture) can instill fear, merely because it is what we learned as truth from an early start.
Fear of the Unknown or Lack of Control
It’s scary when we don’t know what is about to happen. The imagination can take us to dark places. You lose your job, for example, and you can quickly spiral downward into the depths of despair into thinking you might end up homeless and starving to death.
If we peel back the layers of fear, fundamentally, “fear of the unknown” may be at the core. Research suggests that fearing the unknown is the root of anxiety and neuroticism (Carleton, 2016). Think about it… aren’t we in a state of distress and worry when we feel we have no control about a situation? It’s like being in bondage — a victim of circumstances. When feelings of worry are present for an extended period, this is defined as an anxiety disorder, which includes symptoms of excessive, persistent and unwarranted fear. Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder (APA, 2013).
What are We So Afraid Of?
An interesting study is conducted annually by an American University. The Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 5 (2019) was a survey conducted of just under 1,200 randomly-selected adults who were asked what they feared most. The resulting list of fears comprised 98 different items. A sample of the top 25 fears is shown here:
In other countries, individuals report similarly about their fears. Across three countries (Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia), results of a survey on fear indicated an excessive level of fear both of earthquakes and of epidemics. Respondents reported they felt afraid for their personal lives and for the health of their family. The researchers also concluded that weather and threat of disasters exasperate fear. (Cvetković, Öcal, & Ivanov, 2019)
Generally, we can see a myriad of social problems are a source of angst among us regardless of where we live, or any other demographic. We fear: political corruption, environmental issues, family matters, war and violence against nations and demographic groups, personal financial security, and safety. Much ado about these fear factors is that we don’t have much control over them. In fact, just as psychological theory suggests, the “not knowing” is the core component of fear. We don’t know if or when the threat will directly strike upon us.
Where we are today and where we are headed is speculative. If copyright laws would allow it, I would quote the lyrics to the 1967 song by Buffalo Springfield, entitled, For What It’s Worth. you can listen two it here:
The essence of current day political unrest is best understood by framing the past and using that as a predictor of the future. Two generations ago we saw oppression, right-fighting, war and discrimination not unlike today. Do things, really, ever change?
We live in a world of uncertainty. It’s a fast and furious place of ever-changing technology and culture, and it seems like we cannot count on anything being predictable. What is disturbing, is that precipitating events are in our hands to control and mediate before things escalate. I’m referring to the hatred towards others that forms based on fear, placing people in “fight” mode. By mere virtue of becoming “offended”; we are witness to retaliatory actions and the demise of so many innocent people in the path of anger, the demise of political careers and sports figures’ fame, to name a few… just for uttering some opinion to which someone opposes.
“Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they are often separated from each other.” (King, 1961)
And, in a more contemporary fashion Dr. Phil McGraw tells us the same:
Anger is nothing more than an outward expression of hurt, fear and frustration” — Dr. Phil McGraw (“Twitter”, 2019)
What Can We Do?
If we could solve the ills of the world by wave of a magic wand, I am sure someone would have done it by now. Connecting the dots about how fear rears its head starting at the individual level, then permeates into groups, communities, nations and all over the world… it seems that the solutions should begin at the individual level.
The first step in solving any problem, obviously, is identifying that there IS a problem.
So much wisdom comes from others. Therefore, I welcome comments and ideas from readers to learn what you fear, what led up to your fears, how you manage it.
Dr. Lewis’s expertise focuses upon the biological, cognitive, and social bases for behavior, the process of human development, psychology and wellness of the individual, psychological dynamics of culture, ethics and diversity. She teaches, writes, and lectures on behavioral sciences topics and is a business owner.
Many thanks to Dr. Doreen Lewis, PhD, Vellichor Research, www.vellichorresearch.com for assisting me with this article.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
APA Stress in America™ Survey: US at ‘Lowest Point We Can Remember;’ Future of Nation Most Commonly Reported Source of Stress. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/11/lowest-point
Bohn, R. & Short, J. (2012). Measuring consumer information. International Journal of Communication, 6, 980–1000.
Carleton, R. (2016). Fear of the unknown: One fear to rule them all?. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 41, 5–21. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2016.03.011
Chapman University Survey on American Fears. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.chapman.edu/wilkinson/research-centers/babbie-center/survey-american-fears.aspx
Cvetković, V. M., Öcal, A., & Ivanov, A. (2019). Young adults’ fear of disasters: A case study of residents from Turkey, Serbia and Macedonia. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, 101095. Retrieved February 15, 2019, from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2019.101095
Gullone, E. (2000). The development of normal fear: A century of research. Clinical psychology review, 20(4), 429–451.
King Jr, M. L. (1961). The Church on the Frontier of Racial Tension.
Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Twitter. (2019). Retrieved from https://twitter.com/drphil/status/489117001390911489?lang=en