Psych Services: Fear – exotic threats and everyday causes

Lisa Garmezy

For the uninitiated, fear usually causes one of two reactions. People can go into “deer-in-the-headlights” mode – panicky, paralyzed and unable to act. Or, they think they have nothing to lose and take unnecessary risks.

Police training instills more reasonable behavior. Everyone tells me in a crisis, the training kicks in. Fear may sneak in when the emergency is over.

The bookkeeper who saved an elementary school in an Atlanta suburb overcame her initial panic.        In 2013 Antoinette Tuff was at the front desk when a 22-year-old male walked in, heavily armed, dressed in black, and intent on suicide by cop. As he fired at police and reloaded, Ms. Tuff told him, “Don’t feel bad, baby . . . we all go through something in life.”

Sharing her marital problems and that she had once considered suicide, Ms. Tuff convinced him to surrender. One analyst thought her motherly style broke through the shooter’s dehumanizing of others. Now a motivational speaker, Ms. Tuff gives the credit to God.

Our emotional reaction to a threat – fear, that is – seldom helps us think more clearly. Below, we’ll see how it affects decisions, for better or worse.

Fear of the Rare

In 2013, 56,979 people in this country died from the flu and pneumonia. To date, exactly two have died from Ebola. Yet which do we find scarier?

Fear pays attention to what is novel or distinct, not the run of the mill. Again, 32,719 Americans died on our roads in 2013. Approximately 138 are killed in plane crashes annually. Yet virtually no one feels afraid to travel in cars.

Statistics mean nothing to fear—it recognizes only “possible” and “not possible,” with no shades of grey. So if catching Ebola is possible, and it’s rare, it’s going to alarm us more than catching a more common disease. By the same principle, people are more afraid of terrorist attacks than dying from stray gunfire.

It’s Catching

Second, we know that fear is contagious. Recent research suggests it literally spreads person-to-person through sweat. Psychologists collected sweat from volunteers who were scared by watching horror movies and those who hadn’t been scared. Later, new volunteers smelled the “scared sweat” and the “neutral sweat”—and they perceived faces as scarier if they were exposed to the “scared sweat.” Our actions, expressions and words communicate fear, too.

It’s not surprising that fear spreads from person to person. So does risk-taking, as every worried parent knows. So, actually, does obesity. Heavy people have heavy friends, and in experiments, people eat more if their companions are heavy. We are social beings who look to others to know what to do and how to feel.

I was in grad school at Penn State in 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant had a partial meltdown, releasing small amounts of radioactive contamination into the air only 100 miles away. Seeing other people freak out made it more real. Suddenly, everyone on campus was going away for the weekend.

The governor recommended evacuation for pregnant women, babies and preschool-aged children within five miles of the crippled reactor. About 5,000 people were supposed to leave; about 144,000 people did. It didn’t help that a popular movie about a nuclear disaster, The China Syndrome, had opened 12 days earlier.

Fear is a deadly force to be reckoned with. In fires in public venues, everyone rushes to the same exits, ignoring life-saving options the crowd hasn’t noticed.

Fear in anticipation of or in response to being separated from loved ones motivates behavior in disaster circumstances. Along with poorly planned routes, this separation anxiety has been offered as a partial explanation for the crush of the crowd that killed over 2,200 pilgrims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia last year.

How Fear Can Help

Last, some people’s phobias – that is, excessive and irrational fears – cause them to avoid animals, heights, insects and so forth. Genetic programming may “wire in” a tendency to develop certain useful fears. No one seems to get panicky around goldfish or flowers.

From an evolutionary standpoint this makes sense. An inherited fear of contagious disease could help ensure survival, and would account for our Ebola panic. Passing out at the sight of blood, as some people do, keeps you from running around and losing it more rapidly.

There are two take-home messages in these musings. Your physician would agree that we need to pay less attention to exotic threats to our health and more to the everyday causes of death—diabetes, heart disease, and so on. By the way, through February it’s still a good idea to get a flu shot.

Finally, Ms. Tuff’s story reminds us to develop practices that steady and calm us, because our world offers no shortage of challenges. She met a would-be killer on a day she began with the Twenty-third Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”