Nervous anticipation is making emotional and physical wrecks of some of us who live in the big cities or obsessively watch the ever-alert cable TV news shows. Politicians on all sides are broadcasting their danger/safety messages via the media’s hype apparatus. This tapping into today’s fears for political purposes is perhaps even more dangerous than the terrorist acts themselves.
Our post-9/11 fears have become a free-floating anxiety that lacks a specific target. We lack information as to where, when or how, or even whether, the threat is greater today than it was yesterday. We no longer know whom to blame or whom to follow to safety.
The collateral damage of these fears appears to be many Americans’ health. We are on perpetual alert status, which stokes safety concerns. This process wears us down and interferes with our ability to function.
If fear is no longer protective, if it has been transformed from an adaptive tool into a symptomatic illness, then we have to find a way to cure it.
To slow the spread of fear, it is necessary to “vaccinate” with reason those who aren’t yet afflicted. A population that is slow to react hysterically helps contain fear. But lasting immunity to the epidemic of fear is difficult to attain. The biochemistry is built into our brains, waiting to be triggered.
Once fear has been elicited, it is stored deep in the emotional memory, ready to emerge whenever the so-called danger recurs.
In early 2004 my daughter, Rebecca, was taking a bath. She was almost 3 years old, the time when the brain circuitry completes its wiring of the “safety center” in the prefrontal cortex: She had never before experienced the bubble effect, and when the Jacuzzi device in the tub turned on automatically, I was on the other side of the apartment. By the time I rushed back to the tub, she was petrified, standing straight up, bright red from crying.
For months afterward, she was afraid to take a bath at all. I tried to appeal to her newly working brain center to suppress the fear that this tub would always bring scary bubbles, but the fear response was too strong.
This is something like the reality that we encounter in America in the twenty-first century. Once alerted, once afraid, it is hard to turn the switch back to the “off” position. The news signals danger, and we instantly fear it. A person living in a small town in the heartland who watches cable news may experience the fear almost as much as a big-city dweller who has an infinitely greater risk of witnessing terrorism up close. An absurd confirmation of this manufactured, TV fear comes when Homeland Security allocates funds to protect people against terrorism at a rate of $25 per person in New York, and just over $60 per person in Wyoming (in 2004).
Of course, one simple cure is to turn off the TV.