By Tracey Palmer
Fear is a basic involuntary human process, like breathing or sleeping. Yet there are many aspects of fear that can’t be explained. In December, Professor of Religious Studies Richard Gribble, C.S.C., right, wrote an essay, “Fear: The Catalyst to Success,” for the Congregation of Holy Cross’ Reflection Series, where he claimed that, while fear can paralyze us if we let it, it can more importantly “be the life buoy that does not allow us to drown in the pool of despair, but rather to courageously swim to safety.”
What exactly, then, is fear? Is it a good emotion or a bad one? Is it helpful or a hindrance? Are perceived fears as harmful as real ones? What do we rally know about fear? SAM asked three Stonehill professors to weigh in on this “scary” topic.
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”—Marie Curie
Fear is an adaptive behavior that helps us identify danger. If we didn’t feel it, we couldn’t protect ourselves from legitimate threats. “Our fight or flight system is one of our oldest responses,” says Erin O’Hea, associate professor of psychology. “All animals have it. If we didn’t have fear, we’d die.” From an evolutionary perspective, there are many fears that are natural to humans. The most common specific phobias are things that can actually kill us, for example, thunderstorms, snakes, dogs, blood and needles, enclosed spaces and heights.
Monsters and the dark, however, are common fears that are shaped by our upbringing, environment and culture. Our parents, teachers and friends pass on their own phobias. Our culture teaches us what to be afraid of through fairy tales, movies and urban legends. (Think showers and the movie Psycho or swimming in the ocean and the movie Jaws.) Anxiety disorders—when the feeling of fear or worry is no longer temporary and worsens over time—have biological, psychological and social causes.
“You’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” —Jerry Seinfeld
Public speaking is often listed as a thing most people fear—many rank it higher than death. But there’s no physical danger associated with talking in front of a group of people. So is this really fear? Isn’t it just anxiety? What’s the difference? O’Hea explains it this way. When you experience fear, stress hormones flood your body; your blood pressure rises, sending oxygen to fuel your muscles in case they’re needed; sweat comes to the surface to cool you; nonessential functions (like reproduction and digestion) shut down and hormones focus your attention on the threat—everything else is blocked out. The cause of this fear response is imminent threat of danger, like a gun pointed at your head or a car coming straight at you. All of the same physical responses can occur when you’re experiencing anxiety, but with anxiety, the cause isn’t a real threat, it’s driven by your thoughts. With anxiety, the threat is not present but anticipated. In either case, our response can feel the same.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.”—Eleanor Roosevelt
Why do some people like being scared and others dislike it? We all know someone who loves the adrenaline rush of roller coasters or the thrill of a horror movie. It’s fair to say none of us wants to face a truly life-threatening situation, but for some people, the natural high they get from the fight or flight response can feel exhilarating.
When we engage in these types of activities, a neurochemical process happens that feels good to some, explains O’Hea, so they repeat that activity to get the “rush” again. The feeling is similar to drug and alcohol use. “One of the reasons people repeat using those substances is the neurochemical changes that feel intoxicating,” she explains.
Learned confidence is another factor, say O’Hea. “When we face something scary and get through it, we gain a sense of confidence and pride,” she says. Extreme sports enthusiasts are an example of this; they continue their risky behavior because each time they complete a free climb, sky dive or BASE jump, they survive.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”—Psalms, 23:4
The confidence that results from overcoming fear plays out in our everyday lives, too. Very often the accomplishments of which we are most proud are those we initially considered impossible to achieve. Fr. Gribble says that our ability to overcome this fear of failure, utilizing it as a catalyst, can be the fuel to success. “We must remove the chains that bind us, take the chance and be confident that, with the Lord’s help, all is possible,” he says.
As someone who studies Catholicism and history, Fr. Gribble believes it’s how we respond to fear and anxiety that matters. “Fear can help us go forward and accomplish something we didn’t think possible,” he says. “It can be the catalyst that forces us to prepare more diligently and fully for future events.” However, he adds, far too often we let fear bind us, like a straitjacket. He points out that “when raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus proclaims, ‘Untie him and let him go’ (John 11:44c). Jesus realized that the bandages that bound Lazarus were far more than ceremonial for death; they were illustrative of how many of us bind ourselves, shutting God out and not allowing the Lord to work through us. Jesus is telling us that our fear can and must be used as a vehicle to continue the journey.”
“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.”—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Acts of terrorism, mass shootings, police brutality—these seem to be reported more often and cause many of us anxiety. As a society, are we more fearful today than in the past? Jungyun Gill, assistant professor of sociology and criminology, looks at the facts behind fear in our culture.
First, it’s important to keep in mind the financial interests of news media and the entertainment industry when we discuss fear in society, Gill says. “News networks have an interest in drawing the largest possible audiences. Stories on violence, especially stories that have an unusual or sensational twist, fascinate the public. For example, nothing is more terrifying and, therefore, more interesting to the public than acts of violence committed against totally innocent people (like ‘us’). With our national and now global media, it’s much more possible for acts of violence that occur anywhere in the world to be broadcast on our local news within minutes of when they occur. And the many millions of people with smart phones means there’s a good chance there will be an accompanying video. Violence typically generates good ratings.”
There is a similar phenomenon in the entertainment industry, she adds. A great number of U.S. TV shows focus on crime, especially violent crime. Think Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). “The serial killer has become a modern cultural icon in contemporary entertainment, from Dexter to Criminal Minds,” Gill says. “There is a huge market for these programs. Yet criminologists know that there cannot possibly be the enormous number of prolific serial killers portrayed on such shows.”
Gill points to data indicating that the number of serial murders, as well as homicides in general (and other forms of violent crime), has actually decreased over recent decades. One report shows that while the murder rate (the number of homicide victims per 100,000 U.S. residents) was 10.2 in 1980 (and was almost that high in the early 1990s), it has fallen to 4.5 in 2014. “In other words,” Gill notes, “in the U.S., the risk of being a victim of homicide is now less than half of what it was in 1980.”
Another factor adding to our current level of fear and anxiety is politics, says Gill. “Politicians often try to win support by convincing voters that they are in great danger. The solution, they say, is to put them in power. The current election cycle political debate issues include terrorism, mass shootings and police misconduct, as well as other fears about educational debt, stagnant wages and immigration.
“You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.”—Stephen Colbert
O’Hea backs up Gill’s thinking. “We are living in an age of fear,” she says. “Because of our technology, we can’t get away from people and events that scare us. We live in a heightened sense of anxiety, something our bodies are not wired to withstand. Early man had real things to be afraid of, like being chased by a bear. But he was not reminded about that bear 24/7 on a live feed. When we constantly see images and read about bad things happening in the world, we think the likelihood of these things happening to us is increased, and the more we think it could happen to us.” Many experts say that if you want to avoid feeling anxious about the world, don’t watch the nightly news. Try a comedy show instead!
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”—Nelson Mandela
Of course, terrible things do happen in our world, and there are many real dangers to be afraid of, but fear is not always what it seems. Sometimes it is an anxiety we can learn to control or an unsettling feeling we can harness as a positive motivator. This is what Fr. Gribble believes. “The healthy fear that David had for Goliath allowed him to find an innovative way to conquer the great Philistine champion (I Samuel 17:31-51). This fear helped him to conquer the odds. Let us be so inspired, to use fear productively, finding our way to achieve great things as we build the kingdom of God in our world.”