How to be Wise About Fear
Imagine you read, watch or listen to a story about a 'super virus.' That is one of those virus' that don't respond to antibiotics. Victims come down with flu-like symptoms, are admitted to hospitals and, in 50% of cases, die. You learn about several cases and the hospitals that fight to stop the spread of the virus. This virus is so virulent that hospitals must rip out plumbing and isolate rooms in order to ensure that the virus doesn't spread further and kill more people.
Now, imagine that later in that same day, two of your children are sent home from school with flu-like symptoms. What is your first thought? Are you worried that they've caught a 'super virus?' When they seem to feel better in the afternoon and begin to play normally, do you wonder if it's the calm before the storm? Do you imagine how you might handle their hospitalization? Do you think about what you might do if one of them died?
When they recover, do you think that you are very lucky to have escaped likely death? Sometimes we fear circumstances, even though they are highly unlikely. And we behave as if remote possibilities are real and probable threats. The odds of a global pandemic are close to zero, but after hearing about one, we find it much more plausible.
Many of us, today, are really bad about assessing risk. Because we're surrounded by news articles about potential risks, TV drama's about crime, disease and injury, pundits spouting worst case scenarios and products designed to keep us safe, we expect that we are, in fact, surviving in the midst of probable disaster.
In addition to the deluge of information about remote risks, our brains are wired to cling to scary thoughts. We remember the one story about a woman who catches a super virus and forget the millions of people who get flu-like symptoms and recover without incident. Even the act of imagining certain dire outcomes can make you more likely to believe that those outcomes are possible.
It's important to remember that TV, radio and internet are only recent developments, if you think of all of human history. Our brains didn't develop to differentiate between images we see through the media and real threats we experience in our everyday life. When our brain sees something dangerous, we're wired to interpret and respond to the threat.
When a situation in real life occurs that has similar features to the threat we've seen or heard about-- your child gets flu-like symptoms after you've learned about a super virus-you remember the scary story and, rather than interpret the danger as remote, you become fearful.
How to be Wise about Fear
It's difficult to see our own bias' and to recognize when our fears are based in unrealistic images or remote possibilities. If you want to become less fearful, try the following:
- Turn off the TV and computer
- Educate yourself about the real statistical likelihood of certain dangers
- Look back in history to a time when people weren't surrounded by the information we see daily.
- Take baby steps-expose yourself briefly and in small ways to situations that you know rationally have little risk, but emotionally feel scary.
- Get to know your community-we feel less scared if we know the people around us.
You don't have to be victim to a culture of fear or the images around you. Try one or two of the strategies above and see if you reduce the anxiety you feel about every day life events. Bring your attention to those mundane daily moments, when you and those around you are safe, such as when children recover from minor colds, when a cut heals without incident or when your neighbor smiles a friendly hello.