Those Fears Of Yours

November 14, 2016



I’ve spent the last couple of days digging into fear and anxiety, and how they work on a psychological and neurobiological level.


In this time of post-election hysteria and fear-mongering in the U.S. (and around the world), I thought I’d write an article sharinging some of the ideas i've come across. 


The goal is to help you dispel many of the “fear illusions” that the human mind is susceptible to.


Here are a few interesting insights from my digging into fear:


Most of what is named fear is really anxiety


NYU professor Joseph LeDoux, perhaps the world’s leading researcher of the emotional brain shared an important distinction between fear and anxiety.


Fear, he explained, is a response to an immediate threat, like falling down stairs. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to something one anticipates might be a threat in the future. It is an experience of uncertainty. And they occur in completely different places in the brain.


When it comes to anxiety (anticipating future threats), our judgment is generally poor and easily manipulated. Most of the things we worry about will never happen. Yet because that uncertainty is so uncomfortable, most people will make bad decisions to create the illusion of certainty.


The solution, University of Pittsburgh sociologist Margee Kerr explains: "Learn to have a degree of acceptance around uncertainty and ambiguity, learn to feel comfortable with change, and seek to understand things you may be afraid of rather than withdrawing from them." After all entropy(lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder) is a law of physics that we can not escape.


We are poor judges of risk.



There are countless examples from psychological research of how bad humans can be at decision-making, responding more to emotional impact than actual facts. This is very clear to see everyday on social media after the recent political winds have changed. Most are not operating from what they know for sure is a factual base. Many are coming from what they heard on this or that media outlet, without ever digging into what might really be concluded.


One study, for example, demonstrated that people were willing to pay more for flight insurance to protect them from terrorism than they were to pay for flight insurance covering “all causes.”


The name for this phenomenon is probability neglect. In other words, when we are emotionally stirred by something, especially if it’s something we can vividly imagine, we will fear its outcome even if it is highly unlikely that it will ever happen.


It's why we're more scared of murder, terrorism, and all the ways strangers can kill or harm us than the ways people we know can kill or harm us, which is statistically far more likely to happen.


But even beyond these, the biggest threat to your safety is actually you. Distracted driving, not wearing a seat belt, smoking, bad food choices, prescription pill abuse, alcoholism, suicide, and the like are the biggest dangers to your life. And I haven't seen any presidential candidates talking about how to solve these things. On the bright side that self driving car is right around the corner, and i for one am excited for that to become a reality.


Why is it that the more common killers are not bringing up as much fear as the unknowns? Because they don't evoke vivid pictures of violence that get our emotional systems worked up. 


This is why, on a social level, one of the tips to get over anxiety from best selling author Neil Strauss's book Rules of the Game is: Don’t project negative outcomes in your mind.


To which should be added: Look at legitimate facts, data, and statistics, and if they don't support your anxiety, you may want to toss that anxiety to the curb and out of your mind.


 “Not lose” rather than winning.


Social psychologists call this loss aversion. It’s the idea that people are more fearful about losing something than they are excited about gaining something equivalent—and often, even greater.


Here’s an example: In a study, cancer patients were told that after undergoing a certain treatment, they’d have a 68% chance of living for another year; meanwhile another group were told that after the treatment, there was a 32% chance they’d die in the next year.


Even though the odds were the exact same, 44% of patients opted for the treatment in the first scenario but only 18% chose it in the second.


So before making a decision, look at both the upside and the downside, and crunch the numbers, before making a decision. The numbers are out there. That's the purpose of economics.


Don’t Hang Out Only With People Of Similar Beliefs


There’s a peril that occurs in social groups, such as meet-up groups, and on social media, especially if you’re following multiple accounts of people who share similar viewpoints or agendas. It’s called the law of group polarization, which states that if like-minded people are concerned about an issue, their views will become more extreme after discussing it together.


So if you want to keep an open mind and remain rooted in reality, and not find yourself in an echo chamber of your biases, don’t run with just one social herd. And similarly, if you want to advance an idea to change the world, form a community and meet often.


Unplug from the news media


Studies have found  a direct connection between the amount of time you spend watching the news and your reported levels of anxiety.


Turn off that “news” feed on your iPhone home screen, get off your Social network of choice, and stop checking news aggregator sites. Especially the ones that have algorithms that determine what you click on and feed you more of your biggest fear.


I can attest to this: I suppressed a number of news and social apps from being the first thing that pops up on my phone recently and had an instant boost in my already high happiness. I highly recommend it.


Less news media means more happiness. Read/listen to great literature that challenge you instead: Audible is my go to for audio books. $25 for two books a month. I know that a $25 investment in yourself is the greatest deal ever.


Fear of Death and Insignificance Make People Hateful


One of the interesting theories in social science is terror management theory. It is predicated on the idea that as adult human beings, we have a desire to live, yet we know that—at a time and by a cause unknown to us—we are going to die.


So to manage this existential anxiety, we embrace a cultural worldview that provides us with order, meaning, importance, and, ultimately, self-esteem. The effectiveness of this strategy depends on the agreement of others who share our beliefs (see group polarity). And when those beliefs are threatened, we will go to great lengths to preserve and defend them (see: everything from trolling to terrorism.)


As a result, when people are reminded of their mortality, they can become more prejudiced, more aggressive toward people with different worldviews, and believe that there is a greater social consensus for their beliefs than there actually is. In addition, political beliefs shift to support militaristic policies, charismatic nationalists, and increased domestic surveillance.


Now here’s what’s interesting: Tom Pyszczynski, one of the people who developed terror management theory. is quoted as saying:


“Fear made people very defensive of their beliefs and values, and suspicious of people who were different. But if reminded of their culture’s value of a sense of shared humanity and that we are all in this together, it reversed the effect so that fear actually increased support for peace-making.”


In short, compassion beats anxiety.


So this post is a way of reminding you:


Massively restrict your news-related media intake. Notice how many times media outlets, advertisers, politicians, advocacy groups, attorneys, and more are trying to pump fear into you in order to serve their own agenda.


Instead, mediate, eat well, take up yoga, sleep well, travel, learn, make art, meet new people, take that trip or do that workshop you’ve always wanted to, and work to clear your mind so you can enjoy the world through your own eyes, not someone else’s.


So this is a reminder for today and every day to enjoy this life to its fullest. The world is as scary as you decide it is and it is as beautiful as you decide it is.




Track Of The Week - Come Together - Joe Cocker(Across The Universe)





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