Why Fear is Boss

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Our rulers understand this and try hard to keep us afraid, so we won’t think too much. As the Nazi Hermann Goering said, you can always get people to support war, even though they don’t want it. “Just tell them the country is being attacked,” he told his Nuremberg trial, “and denounce the peacemakers for exposing the country to danger.”

It works every time. These days it’s the endless war on terror. Everyone’s a potential enemy. Fear short circuits empathy and sympathy, so that people will refuse to take in refugees in desperate need. At home, people fear each other, too, based on color or clothing. Cops shoot unarmed people out of misplaced fear.

On a personal level, fear takes most of the enjoyment and love out of life. As psychologist Rick Hanson wrote in his book Buddha’s Brain, fear causes us to focus on the negative. You go to a party and eight lovely things happen – meetings, conversations, food, attraction, dance – and one clumsy thing – you bump into someone and they glare at you. You’ll probably remember the one negative over all the positives.

This focus on fear is a survival strategy from long ago. If that one negative was a tiger behind a tree, you really needed to focus on that, even if it meant passing up food or a potential mate. There will be other food, other mates, but not if the tiger eats you first.

Fear also damages health. It raises blood pressure, causes insulin resistance, makes you fat, and sets you up for diabetes and heart disease. As I documented in Chapter 2 of my diabetes book, fear is not evenly distributed through society. The less power you have, the more you have to be afraid of. The lower your social status, the more fear will stress your body and shorten your life. This is why poor people, people of discriminated against groups, people with less education, and victims of trauma have more chronic illness than other people.

According to Dr. Ledoux, fear is the only emotion that has its own office in the brain. It lives in the amygdala, a part of the brain largely disconnected from the thought centers in the cortex. You can’t talk to it. Often, our fear presents as a low-level background anxiety of which we’re unaware, though it’s limiting our lines and controlling our thoughts. So how do you reduce fear in yourself, and how can we as a society reduce fear levels?

I don’t know, but others are searching. The UK National Health Service (NHS) suggests taking time out to breathe and relax. If everyone learned to meditate starting at age 5 or so, there would be a lot less fear and a lot less violence in our world.

NHS also recommends exposing yourself to what you fear, especially if it’s other people. That makes total sense to me. I notice much more cautious attitudes toward other people before I get to know them. Everyone’s a threat until you meet them. Studies confirm that people who move around and meet different kinds of people have much less bias and fear of others than people do who stay put in a small community.

Other people can also reduce fear by making you feel supported and protected. Contact with people you trust reduces fear. So can pet dogs and maybe cats.

Sometimes love overcomes fear. If you raise your level of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” your stress hormones will go down and you’ll be less afraid.

According to various studies, some things that raise oxytocin levels are: hugs, giving things away, being trusted, talking with long-time friends, sex, walking in Nature, and telling the truth to others and to yourself. Maybe we could teach those things to everyone, child and adult, starting, of course, with us.

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