- Physiology of Fear
Fear affects our ability to think and act. We can miss important information: our vision can narrow, we can become color blind, our depth perception may weaken. Our sense of time gets distorted.
In such circumstances, it is no surprise that scared people start seeing threats where there are none. There were many false alarms following the terrorist attack of 9/11/2001. People reported all sorts of bomb threats that were purely imagined, at great expense to the affected jurisdictions. When the threat is real, scared people miss crucial details that would help them win, or they freeze up. Some people run away, even though others need their help.
2. Emotional Reactions to Fear
When we get scared, many of us are willing to sacrifice our rights, or the rights of others. Here are two famous historical examples of how fear motivated people in the wrong direction:
- The “Red Scare” of 1919-20. After World War One, American workers eager for wage increases were spied on and/or blacklisted from employment. Picketing was outlawed, thus denying workers their freedom of speech and assembly. Laws protecting against child labor and establishing a minimum wage for women were also struck down. A second red scare took place in the 1940’s and 1950s, ending with the McCarthy Trials in 1954.
- The mass incarceration of Japanese during WWII. Sixty-two percent of them were US citizens! In 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which apologized for government actions based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
3. Fear-Mongering for Political Purposes
It’s important to be alert to fear-mongering for political purposes. Here are some things you can be alert for:
- Messages that create a feeling of vulnerability. “They are out there, waiting, and will attack when we least expect it.” The vulnerability comes from not havingspecific information about who they are, why they want to attack, where they are, when they will attack, or how.
- Us versus them, with “them” being the very bad guys. “They want to do horrible things to us.” “They want to control our lives.” “They want everything for themselves and nothing left for us.”
- Over-generalizing. The fact that a criminal gang in one city, two states over made the news does not mean that there are dangerous criminal gangs in your own neighborhood.
- Wrongful attribution. You may have been told someone in group B attacked someone in your Group A, so you might think there is a real reason to fear people in Group A. You could be very wrong. It might be that the confrontation was actually a drunken argument about a football game.
- Emotional word choices. “I was viciously attacked.” “They seek nothing less than the total destruction of our way of life.” “Death of our republic.”
- Words like “always,” “never,” “endless,” “relentless,” “overwhelming” etc.
- Dramatic music and/or imagery accompanying scary words.
4. Media Exploitation of Fear
The news media often become an unwitting part of the problem. News outlets that rely on viewers to make money (almost all of them) are likely to sensationalize fearful statements and actions in order to get your attention.
If you are a news reporter, consider a different model – there is an alternative you know works because you see it all the time on the web. The formulation goes like this: “Problem! See One Weird Solution That Works (and most people forgot about).” In other words, your readers can be just as fascinated in learning how a problem is solved as we can be caught up worrying about a problem. Helping people fix the problem is more constructive.
- Managing Perceptions
To figure out if a threat is real, then you will need a cool-headed assessment of the who, what, when, where, how and why. With that in hand, can out together a winning response. Other times, your fears might be over-blown or imagined. In those times – if you want to hold on to your rights and liberty – then it is equally important to see things clearly, as they are. Here are some tips that can help sort things out:
- The first step is to deal with your physiology. Do not attempt to take any action or do serious thinking if you do not feel physically calm and mentally focused. If your heart rate, your breathing, and your ability to focus are out of control, try this trick from the military:
- breath in slowly for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, then hold your chest empty for another 4 seconds before your next breath. Repeat several times.
- Second, think things through.
- Look for other explanations. Is your fear justified or is it a misunderstanding?
- Are you being manipulated? Keep in mind people often do scary things to intimidate their voters, victims, or opponents — but what are they after, really?
- Try to sort out scary possibilities from realistic probabilities. A giant killer meteor is possible, but the probability is essentially zero.
- What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe the worst is less scary or more manageable than you originally feared.
- Look for facts you can verify.
- Avoid advice from people who are already panicked.
- Seek opinions and assessments from people who do not think like you.
Fear: You may have been told someone in that outsider group attacked someone in your group, so you might think there is a real reason to fear those outsiders.
Response: Get the facts. It might be a manipulative lie. It might be a half-truth. Or, there may have been an attack, but the confrontation was actually a drunken fight about a football game, not ideology or group identity.
Fears: “It means the Death of our republic if they get their way.” “They want to control our lives.”
Response: Seek perspective. The death of our republic (or our way of life) is very big thing with lots of moving parts that reach deep into our society and our psyche. Can any one group easily wipe that out? Consider, for example, how the Christian church went underground during 70 years of communism in the former Soviet Union and then reestablished itself.
Fears: “They are out there, waiting, and will attack when we least expect it.” “They seek nothing less than the total destruction of our way of life.” “They want to do horrible things to us.”
Response: Seek specifics. Who exactly are they? Who said they will attack, in what forum, and when? Do that person represent all of “them” or is there some differences of opinion within them? Even if they wanted to attack, what is their capacity to do so? Do they have people, are they close by, do they have law makers and judges in their pockets? How do you know? Do they have weapons, training, and money? Even if they have the capacity, do they have a motive and the will-power? When is this attack expected? How will the attack unfold? Seek evidence for each assertion.
Fear: “They want everything for themselves and nothing left for us.”
Response: Let them speak for themselves. Thus far, someone has put words in their mouths. Is that what they would say on their own? They might not want to be where you are. Maybe they don’t want anything other than to be left alone to work hard and make a good life. Maybe they will open a new business and create jobs. Or, maybe they do want something, but it’s not the zero-sum game you fear.
7. Managing Responses
Suppose you have calmed down, got perspective, got the facts, and discovered there really is a threat coming from some group. Now what? We humbly propose that you invest time figuring out what it would take to get these people to drop their threats. Maybe it is possible they expect a zero-sum game and you can show them they are wrong, it is possible to be in a win-win game. For example, some people might want coconuts for the milk, some might want coconuts for the husks – both can have what they want without having to go to war over the coconut trees. Maybe they have been acting badly because they fear you – when they really needn’t. Maybe one side really has been taking more than their share and could give a little.
Or maybe there is truly something incompatible between you and them. If you are not in a democracy, you could solve the problem through bribery, extortion, or violence. These are all things that boost fear and anger levels. Yet, if you are in a democracy, you have legal options and you have the possibility of changing laws and leaders through elections or even through protest movements. You may have to work hard at it, but these options surely involve less personal risk and fear.