HealthCommentary: Sex sells – but Fear and Anxiety sell more

Commentary: Sex sells – but Fear and Anxiety sell more

Editor’s Note: This article is a commentary and update to a published article that the author wrote earlier this year. The original article – Anxiety & Fear: Processing threatening stimuli in the age of new media – discussed the growing perception of external threats from everywhere, analyzed the threats, and suggested some very specific, evidence-based actions to take to alleviate the negative and harmful reactions to the media input. As this political year has progressed, Dr. Norrholm’s earlier advice becomes even more insightful and helpful. The media’s need for viewers and readers and profits will likely lead to more of the same – and that is why this commentary is so timely.

Terrorism, the Zika virus, gun violence…stories about these topics dominate the news outlets. Let’s face it. Fear and anxiety “sell” in such a way that, at first glance, headlines can accumulate reads, likes, and shares because of their scary language. Often, the scary sounding headline is enough to get a click but the story itself will include fearful and anxiety provoking language to keep the reader engaged.

Do we need to remain vigilant about the possibility of danger through disease, violence, or acts of terrorism? Of course. What I’m suggesting is that you take a few minutes to do some research, look at the evidence, and take some time to breathe and process what you see.

Over this past weekend, we were informed of domestic acts of violence that again pushed our sense of personal safety to the forefront. I am not trying to single out one news organization but let’s take a look at some of the language from recent reports.

A single headline from this weekend references three separate attacks on U.S. soil which immediately links three events in the reader’s mind and plays on one’s fears for personal, community, and national safety. The events that are referred to are:

Despite the headlines that already contain the words “terror” or “ISIS” or “US attacks,” the articles only later include the very important qualifying information that “authorities are investigating the incidents as possible acts of terror” and “that authorities have not concluded the incidents are linked.” These incidents may be directly linked by the same perpetrator(s) or they may only be linked by their co-occurrence on the same weekend or a loose “with ISIS-ties” type of label. More evidence will be gathered and conclusions will be drawn in the coming days and weeks. In fact, some news agencies have proceeded with caution and highlighted the preliminary nature of the links –

My point is this: The information that this may have been an act of terrorism that may have links to terrorist groups known to be targeting U.S. interests worldwide is buried after the alarm bells have been rung and the anxieties raised. For example, a statement is made in a recent article, prior to the qualifying information about possibilities that many across the country were “on edge.” Were they? How many? Was a survey conducted to gauge the level of uneasiness in different parts of the country? In many ways it doesn’t matter because that statement has already been printed, posted, and/or disseminated. We are under attack and you should be scared!

As I have stated in previous writings, read the label, turn the story over, ask questions, as these are productive activities in the face of these reports. Not only is that healthy advice for sifting through news stories related to terrorism and violence but also as you read, hear, and process the information presented to you by political candidates, pundits, and at the water cooler.

Associate Professor, School of Medicine at Wayne State University

Seth D. Norrholm, Ph.D. (Twitter: @SethN12) is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine. Dr. Norrholm has spent 20 years studying trauma-, stressor-, anxiety-, depressive-, and substance use-related disorders and has published over 100 peer-reviewed research articles and book chapters. The primary objective of his work is to develop “bench-to-bedside” clinical research methods to inform therapeutic interventions for fear and anxiety-related disorders and how they relate to human factors such as personality, genetics, and environmental influences.

Dr. Norrholm’s more recent work has focused on fear and anxiety in the community and how it is affected by the influence of mass media, social media outlets, and the sociopolitical environment. Dr. Norrholm has been featured on NBC, ABC, PBS,,, The Atlantic,, The Huffington Post,, USA Today, WebMD, The History Channel, and Scientific American. In 2019, Dr. Norrholm was recognized as an Expertscape world expert in Fear and Posttraumatic Stress Disorders.


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