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Fear, panic, and society, part two.

Posted Aug 06 2009 8:12pm

When you’re afraid, there are five basic steps to coping effectively.

First, you must identify the cause of your fear. In my case, as long as I believed that what threatened me was a heart attack or stroke, I would never identify nor begin to understand what was really causing the adrenaline to flood my system: panic.

Second, you must learn about the cause of your fear. In my case, with enough reading about panic, I finally began to believe that, despite what my body and mind were telling me during my panic attacks, I was not in mortal danger when one struck; that the places I associated with panic – the rush-hour subway, the crowded shopping mall – were not in fact dangerous; that panic is biological as well as psychological in nature, and not an indication of personal weakness or a deficient personality; and, perhaps most importantly, that millions of people experience panic – that I was not alone.

Third, you must analyze the way you process fear in your thoughts, identifying when fearful thinking is irrational and challenging that irrational thinking with logic and objective truth. Cognitive restructuring, it’s called in psychology-speak. we tend to focus on the negative, on what might go wrong; we think catastrophic thoughts, which prevent us from acknowledging that reality might not be quite so bleak as the world we’ve conjured in our head. When we listen the voice in our head that says we’re having a heart attack or a stroke, panic is terrifying. When, rather, we question that voice, offering a reality-based alternative to the story about the world it wants us to believe, panic becomes something not quite as severe – something not quite panic. “It’s not a heart attack, it’s a physiological response to adrenaline,” we tell ourselves, and panic has that much smaller a hold on us.

Fourth, you must learn to relax, to calm your body and give your mind a break from worry. Painting, reading, listening to music, hiking, working out, meditating…there’s a long list of activities people who panic can use to help keep their anxiety in check. Learning to relax and forget our fears for a while allows us to deal with those fears more realistically and effectively.

Fifth and finally, you must stop avoiding your fear, and face it head-on. You must expose yourself to the things you fear – the people, places, situations – so that you can learn that those things do not cause nearly as much existential threat as your panic has convinced you they do. After one debilitating bout of agoraphobia when I lived in Los Angeles, for instance, it was only by getting in my car and driving a bit farther from home each evening that I was able to reclaim the ability to move about that city without fear-imposed restrictions.

The weeks and months after 9/11 were a time of great fear. Unfortunately, the actions we took in response to that fear rarely mapped to these five steps; indeed, the actions we took as a result of 9/11 often ran completely counter to these proven prescriptions for dealing with fear.

Consider step one: identifying fear’s cause. The immediate cause, of course, was al Qaeda, the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist network headed by an elusive Saudi-born ideologue named Osama bin Laden, was the immediate cause of our fear. Immediately, though, we began to confuse the issue. In the weeks following 9/11, U.S. authorities rounded up some 1,200 Arab and Muslim immigrants, for the most part with no credible evidence that they were connected to al Qaeda. By 2003, we were invading Iraq – again, without credible evidence of a connection to al Qaeda.

Or step two: understanding fear’s cause. Al Qaeda has always been forthcoming with its reasons for targeting the United States; essentially, what bin Laden and his followers consider U.S. meddling in Islamic regions of the world: our covert but significant role in Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation in the 1980s, our ongoing military presence in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries, and our longstanding, steadfast support of Israel. But instead of explicitly acknowledging this complaint, we chose to focus on other, often completely fabricated reasons for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “Islam is a violent, evil religion,” the voices of ignorance exclaimed. “They’re jealous of our freedom.”

Painting all of Islam with the “terrorist” brush is simply ignorant at best and utterly counterproductive at worst; calling their religion evil has almost certainly increased anti-American sentiment among Muslims around the world. And while we should certainly hold al Qaeda to account for its murderous acts, if we were smart – if we really wanted to lessen the threat that al Qaeda poses – we’d at least acknowledge, and consider the validity of, that organization’s political complaints.

Or step three: challenging fearful thoughts. Rather than managing our frightening but unrealistic cognitions in the wake of 9/11 by questioning their validity, our leaders went out of their way to provoke them, conjuring images of suitcase nukes and mushroom clouds rising over American cities. Everything was different, now; we had been forced into a global war on terror with no end in sight, a crusade against death-minded, heathen hordes. The threats were everywhere; no one could be trusted. Foreign-sounding strangers, people taking snapshots of government buildings – all these things justified fear, or so we were told.

Or step four: taking steps to relieve stress. We didn’t do much relaxing after 9/11. It wasn’t really possible, what with the flood of messages telling us to be afraid – very afraid. On TV, Fox News became a one-station fear machine. Each week during prime time, Jack Bauer reinforced the message that there were terrorists everywhere, that we should trust no one. At the airport, disembodied voices warned us to beware unattended baggage. I have no way of knowing whether I’m correct, but it’s my belief that a society which encourages constant vigilance and complete distrust is a society that promises to become increasingly unlivable.

And then there’s step five: avoiding avoidance. To avoid giving people, places, and situations a power over us they don’t merit in reality – to live fully in the world, going where we want to go, doing what we want to do, and in general giving ourselves the best possible shot at achieving our personal and professional aspirations – we much force ourselves to enter fearsome situations and learn to cope with the anxiety they provoke. After 9/11, though, as a society we tended more towards avoiding what we didn’t want to face. For instance, we stopped flying when (thanks to heightened security) airliners were probably the safest mode of transport available. “Just go shopping like you usually would, and everything will be okay,” our leaders told us, as though distraction and avoidance rather than honesty and engagement were the most effective ways to negotiate our way through fear.

Each step along the way, we failed to think and act in ways that are known to be effective in coping with fear. As a result, our civil liberties have been curtailed. We’ve become a nation that tortures. Our Muslim communities have been marginalized. Resentment of the U.S. is at an all-time high, and a new generation of Muslim kids has been radicalized in the Middle East and around the world. All the while, 24/7 cable newscasts and radio talk show blowhards ensure that our fear remains at fever pitch. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have died in an unnecessary war in Iraq – and bin Laden remains free, continuing to lead a terrorist organization that may be more powerful today than it was in 2001.

Are we better off as a result of the steps we’ve taken in response to 9/11? As the announcer used to say during Monday Night Football advertising breaks, “You make the call."

Fear, panic, and society, part one.

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