Public discourse sure has changed in recent years. Once, leaders offered stirring eloquence and soaring oratory to persuade hearts and minds. Now, we have tweets and grade school insults. To really grasp the significance of this shift, consider FDR’s first inaugural address. Elected three years into the Great Depression, he was tasked with leading a country drained of material wealth. Somehow, he had to rally the country around ideas. He had to inspire 120 million people to pull themselves out of the depths of despair.
The speech he gave is worth reading if you are not familiar with it. It is honest and stark in its assessment of conditions. And he pulls no punches about how difficult it will be for the country to recover. But the speech is best known for identifying fear as the greatest threat to the crippled nation. FDR said, “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
The country’s best hope for survival was decisive and immediate action. A society spiraling ever deeper into fear and hopelessness was in no position to do the hard work needed to repair itself. So FDR appealed for national courage. He asked people to move forward into the darkness despite their fear.
Today, we live in a country that feels equally capable of collapsing under the weight of crisis. But rather than hearing voices that inspire us to set aside our fears and move towards greatness as a unified people, we hear constant noise of threat and impending doom.
I am the last person to say that there are not real and even existential threats to our society. But the threats and our fear are two different things.
So why is there so much noise and little that is truly inspiring?
It has to do with how our brains work.
Our minds evolved to prioritize threats over all other information. If a 500-pound saber-toothed tiger is bearing down on you with jaws wide, you are probably not going to stop to appreciate the beauty of the scenery or ponder the meaning of life. Your brain is going to shut down all activity not related to dealing with the big scary cat.
This is a very healthy and appropriate response to such a situation, and we are the beneficiaries of generations of humans who had brains that reacted to physical threat with focus and fight-or-flight impulses.
Unfortunately, our brains did not evolve with the ability to do a good job of distinguishing between real threat and the fear of threat. So now, in the absence of saber-toothed tigers, our brains prioritize things that frighten us, even if they can’t really harm us.
Because our brains work this way, there are powerful incentives for people and organizations to offer us messages of fear over hope.
Social media posts and news headlines get more clicks if they are scary. TV news gets more viewers and keeps people watching longer when there is a crisis. Politicians are able to hold your attention if they describe a threat and impending doom, then promise to protect you.
Again, I am not saying that there are not genuine problems in the world. What I am describing is that attention economy is fueled by fear because scary things are prioritized to the top by our brains.
When a woman goes into labor, her body releases the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin cause the uterine contractions that push the baby. It is also has pain relieving and calming effects, so the pain of the contractions causes the release of more oxytocin. Which then leads to more contractions…and on and on, until you have a baby.
This self-perpetuating loop is called a cascade or cascading reaction.
Our relationship with fear and the messages that fuel that fear are also part of a cascading reaction. We prioritize and react most strongly to information that frightens us. In a society driven politically, socially and economically by how much attention can be captured, there are strong incentives to give us frightening messages. We then react to this fear by giving more of our attention to that which scares us, which then incentivizes more distressing content…and on and on.
While there is plenty in the world that is worthy of fear and distrust, our perceptions of scale and proportion are being distorted by this process.
By definition, fear is irrational. There may be rational reasons for being afraid, but the fear itself is not rational—it is an emotion. And this fact has very important consequences to how our brains work. In the moment of feeling fear, we are unable to process nuance. When we are afraid, it is very difficult to access memories and problem solve. When we are afraid, we see things in black or white, fight or flight.
The long term implications can be that chronic fear and anxiety leads to the part of the brain called the amygdala growing larger. The amygdala is responsible for controlling brain function when you are afraid. If it grows larger, you are more likely to react with a fear response.
Chronic fear and anxiety can also reduce the size of your hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for creating long-term memory and for creativity. As the hippocampus shrinks, we become less able to remember things and problem solve.
Breaking this fear cascade is important for your mental health. These days, I recommend limiting news and social media consumption. You can stay informed, but take it in healthier doses.
This can help adults be less consumed by fear, as can seeking a more balanced diet of information. There are plenty of inspiring people and events in the world—we just have to seek them out.
For children, this is all very important as well. Children experience fear about world events along with adults. Helping them understand what is going on, as well as managing their information consumption can be helpful.
But children have an additional element to their fears that should be considered when helping your child process what frightens them.
They need to engage the reality of things that are scary. Answer their questions as honestly as possible. The more they understand, the easier it is for them to wrap their heads around scary things.
But you also need to acknowledge the fear itself. The emotion can be sticky and needs to be addressed directly. It is not enough to discuss the thing that is scary, you have to discuss the feeling of being scared.
In doing so, you can validate the feeling and let your child know that regardless of how real the threat is, the feeling of threat is real.
Your child may be afraid of the dark even though there is nothing in their dark room that is dangerous. If you tell them, “There is nothing in your room that is going to hurt you,” you might be giving them facts about what they are afraid of, but there are still going to be terrified when you turn out the light and close the door.
You will have to address the fear itself. You can share times that you were afraid in the absence of real threat. You can let them know that they are safe, but also describe what is being done to protect them. When our daughter expressed fear of the dark, my wife and I both have told her that not only is there nothing in her room that will hurt her, but that we are just outside the door and would protect her if anything did try to hurt her.
There are plenty of reasons to feel fear and anxiety these days. But the world around us is increasingly designed to emphasize our experience of fear which can have lasting consequences on our personal health and the well-being of our society as a whole.
And these fears are trickling down to our children. As we learn to manage our experience of fear, we need to help our children manage theirs as well.