Editor's note: This past weekend has seen a flurry of current events that have been covered non-stop by the media as "terrorist attacks". As a reaction to the reporting and coverage, Dr. Norrholm has written a commentary and reminder on how to process the overwhelming input. It can be found here.
Terrorist attacks; scare tactics from politicians; the sky is falling; we're all in danger from everywhere – the non-stop drive for ratings and attention from media all fuel our worries and anxieties and can endanger our mental well being.
Response to threats is processed in terms of Proximity, Intensity, Immediacy, and Probability.
In this article, the author discusses how the brain and body react to perceived threats and, in reflection of the way and the speed in which the news media package the stimuli, he presents practical ways to think and act to resist a false sense of anxiety.
Advances in technology in the area of communication and information access such as smartphones, tablets, and Internet-based applications have provided the modern person with the capability to gather and process a voluminous amount of information in a short period of time. Mobile devices, for example, provide individuals with a constant, "streaming" connection to the Internet and his or her "social network1." There has been much discussion recently as to whether or not (and under what circumstances) this rather large degree of access and stimulation can help or harm our cognitive abilities and mental health2. The emergence of a 24-hour news cycle and almost instant dissemination of "breaking news" has revolutionized the manner in which we observe and interpret the current events in our world3. While this constant flow of information may be beneficial to some and help assist with cognitive multi-tasking4, there is also the potential that this increased accessibility may adversely affect an individual's psychological well-being5,6. In the following sections, I briefly discuss the human emotions of fear and anxiety, how we are "wired," and how to appropriately deal with these feelings in today's (largely wireless) Age of New Media.
From Threat Detection to Fear
An organism's detection of potential harm involves innate biological processes that exist across the phylogenetic evolutionary spectrum7. Much of what we have learned about how the human brain processes threat has been learned from animal models in which similar mechanisms operate8. However, there are important distinctions between the environmental detection of threat and the conscious experience of human fear. Simply put, threat detection is only one process within the complex emotional experience of fear, worry, and anxiety that comprise human states of being9. The human brain, with its developed higher cortical regions, allows for the activation of threat detection systems and ultimately fear and anxiety through both external and internal cues. External cues are elements in the environment that can pose a threat to the health, integrity, and existence of an individual person (e.g., venomous insects and animals, heights, or a social aggressor). Internal cues include bodily states (e.g., arousal) in addition to the thoughts that are produced through our cognitive abilities. In other words, as humans, our threat detection systems and subsequent feelings extend beyond "is that dangerous" into numerous "what if" scenarios that include potential sources of harm (e.g., disease, physical injury, misfortune, etc.).
Threat detection and defensive response behaviors are typically based on situation-specific factors such as the proximity, intensity, immediacy, and probability of an aversive outcome10,11. For example, a rodent will freeze in its cage when presented with a sound or light that has been previously paired with an electric shock in the same cage12. In this experimental example, the proximity, intensity, immediacy, and probability of an ensuing shock and its associated pain are well controlled and the behavior of the rodent is highly predictable (it will freeze in defense or flee depending on the options made available). In other words, the rodent will act in a manner consistent with what it has previously learned. As humans, our perception of these four factors is more complex and can be manipulated by internal and external cues as previously described.
As defined by LeDoux (2014), fear can be defined as a state that occurs "when the sentient brain is aware that its personal well-being (physical, mental, social, cultural, existential) is challenged or may be at some point" (LeDoux, 2014, p. 2876). Human fear includes awareness that danger is near or possible, and in many types of human fear this can activate the basic threat detection systems (phobia, panic, heights). The mammalian response to threat involves the recruitment of the autonomic nervous system to alter physiological activity (e.g., breathing, heart rate, blood pressure13,14) and endocrine systems to activate hormone release (e.g., cortisol, epinephrine15). A common thread between lower mammals and humans in this regard is that these systems are activated in order to increase the odds that the organism will survive a threatening cue or situation7,16. One of the key discriminating factors between lower mammals and humans is the activation of non-conscious threat detection systems and the very human conscious feelings of fear, anxiety, and worry (for in-depth discussion see recent work by LeDoux 2012, 2014). The experience of human fear as an emotion (as well as the etiology and treatment of fear-based disorders) occurs as a result of the complex interaction between the activation of basic threat detection systems, memory storage and retrieval, and our own conscious awareness.
Acts of domestic and international terrorism and our collective response to these events as a society represent psychological phenomena that elicit conscious feelings of fear, anxiety, or worry in ways that may also include activation of basic threat detection systems. A basic tenet of human fear, both in normal responses to everyday occurrences as well as in fear and anxiety disorders, thoughts can be a critical antecedent to feelings of fear, anxiety, and worry17. In addition, as humans, we possess the capacity to speculate as to potential unexpected or uncontrollable sources of harm. There are many sources of potential threat and subsequent feelings of fear and anxiety that are relatively controllable, such as what we consume (e.g., high calorie foods) and the type of potentially hazardous stimuli to which we are exposed (e.g., cigarette smoke, driving at high speeds). Our sense of control can become lost when our internal dialogue includes potential "what if" situations involving danger to ourself or loved ones18.
The Assessment of Threat in the Age of New Media
As introduced earlier, there are four characteristics of a potential threat that are often targeted by those who engage in acts of terrorism (e.g., domestic and international extremists) as well as those who are tasked with responding to potential threats (e.g., government and political figures, news media): Proximity, Intensity, Immediacy, and Probability.
It has been well established through scientific study of traumatized populations that the closer an individual is to a potential or actual threat, the more likely he or she will experience a psychological post-traumatic response19. It is also widely recognized that if an individual experiences a significant threatening event (e.g., act of violence, motor vehicle accident), it is a normal reaction to experience feelings of intense horror, helplessness, and worry20. The manipulation that often occurs in the electronic media and which populates the Breaking News banners and the rhetoric of political figures leads to an increased sense of proximity to a potential threat. For example, a leading candidate for the upcoming 2016 presidential election recently stated that refugees from Syria who were fleeing extremists from the Islamic State (commonly termed ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) represented "one of the great tactical ploys of all time. A 200,000-man army, maybe. That could be possible21." Although this claim was widely contested, it demonstrates a psychological strategy to exaggerate a potential threat and, in turn, increase the appeal of the candidate as a political leader. In this instance, a claim such as this persists in the public awareness and continues to retain a foothold in fear and anxiety, in part, because there are Syrian refugees already in the United States and many others en route. However, the likelihood of a mass army of extremists poised to attack remains low22.
The human response to threat can also be exaggerated by increases in the perceived magnitude of potential harm. In 2014, an outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa dominated the U.S. news coverage for several weeks. This fueled increased worry among citizens in the U.S. and abroad about a potential worldwide pandemic. People felt compelled to alter their regular daily activities and many reported significant distress as a result of a potential outbreak in the U.S.23. This does not in any way diminish the role of the Centers for Disease Control and the possible spread of infection via mass international transportation mechanisms. However, the probability of a nationwide epidemic (let alone a worldwide pandemic) was very low considering that there were only 4 reported cases in the U.S. (from contact with those infected directly in West Africa24) within a national population of approximately 317 million25. This was not widely reported and conversely many media reports included language such as "fears that a widespread outbreak of Ebola in the United States were heightened today26". While the previous statement may be accurate, the magnitude of the threat did not change significantly and, as such, one's fear should have "heightened" from close to zero to slightly more than close to zero; this tends to be typically buried beneath the emotionally-charged, fear-eliciting language that often leads news reports.
The activation of our threat detection system and feelings of fear and anxiety can also be facilitated by an increased sense of the immediacy of a harmful event or action. The dissemination of extremist propaganda through online sources often includes an undertone of immediacy; this psychological tactic again is employed to artificially increase one's sense of fear. For example, in May 2015, Islamic extremists recently claimed to have operatives in multiple U.S. states ready to attack and this claim was reiterated following the terrorist attacks in Paris in November of this year27. In this instance, there is a deliberate attempt to further a sense of vulnerability and instigate fear, however, it is important to remain mindful that the recency of events, and a perceived connection between events is often the result of twisted or heuristic thinking and not truly related to an actual imminent threat28-31
The probability of being harmed by many of the potential threats that are popularized by electronic media are often inflated for the sake of readership and at the expense of the reader's sense of well-being18,23. The media typically must walk a fine line between covering potential threats to the public and engaging in misleading speculation. If one were to define the construct of "could this happen [here or to me]?" as any probability greater than absolute zero then many of the media reports would be accurate. This definition (any probability greater than zero) has been exemplified in a continuing feature on NBC called "Rossen Reports" in which the host instructs viewers how to survive events such as an avalanche, falling through thin ice, an indoor Christmas tree fire, and exploding manhole covers32. What is often overlooked in these reports is the minute probability that the viewer will encounter one of these unlikely situations. In sum, the probabilities of harm from media reported potential threats are often very low and the reports do not warrant any measure of concern to the reader/viewer.
How to Process Potential Threats in the Age of New Media
Accumulating research and clinical practice in the area of fear and anxiety place a great deal of emphasis on how you think, feel, and act (also termed Cognitive Behavioral strategies17). In the presence of threatening stimulation through electronic media outlets, it is important to focus on thinking or cognitive strategies. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don't overestimate your risk of harm – As previously discussed, the strategic manipulation of potential threats and their proximity, intensity, immediacy, and probability can increase the feelings of danger. The recency of tragic events, the constancy of news feeds, and the lack of reporting of non-events (e.g., the number of people who were NOT attacked over the last few days, weeks, months) can create an exaggerated sense of alarm18,23,33. Take the time to think about these factors if the reporting of negative events becomes overwhelming.
- Accept that there is already uncertainty in your environment – As we go about our daily lives, we encounter a wide variety of uncertain factors that we simply don't pay attention to, but are often more likely to affect us than recent events or potential "newsworthy" threats. We take on risks by crossing the street, trying new foods, driving in traffic, and interpersonal interaction in multiple contexts18,23,33,34.
- Remain mindful of probabilities, likelihood, and odds – When negative events and potential threats are widely broadcast across devices, we have a tendency to worry about these potential threats in a manner that is not proportional to the likelihood of their occurrence18,23,33. For example, being consumed by thoughts of how one would spend potential lottery winnings is equally efficient use of time as being consumed by thoughts of how one would be affected by a terrorist attack. In addition, the repeated reporting of negative news events coupled with the often inaccurate interconnectedness of these events increases our sense of how likely we are to be affected by a mass shooting or terrorist act. It is important to be mindful that there is no greater likelihood of attack today than prior to the attacks in Paris or in San Bernadino. It simply seems as though this is the case due to the drawing of illusory correlations or incorrect relationships between recent events. Practically speaking, these events often appear linked as we scroll down our news feed.
- Critically evaluate the source of the information – In addition to investigating the source of the information, it is important for the electronic media consumer to ask critical questions of the reports. Are they based on empirically collected scientific data? Is the base rate (i.e., number of occurrences each day, week, month, or year in a particular geographic region) of the potential harm described? Are there multiple sources that support the findings of any one source? It is often through the skeptical questioning of published material that one can get a more realistic sense of how dangerous a factor may or may not be to an individual.
- Maintain everyday life routines – Keeping up with daily activities serves many purposes including: (1) engaging in "real world" activities as a form of exposure and (2) avoiding avoidance18,23,33,34. Remaining active in daily life events undermines the idea of chronic and immediate threat. Practically speaking, this means going to public places such as the shopping mall, movies, and social events. By the same token, avoidance of daily activities can lead to withdrawal and rumination on the negative events and/or threats occupying the media.
- Avoid the urge to excessively watch coverage – This does not mean that one is attempting to diminish the meaning or psychological impact of what has happened. It is a normal human reaction to be horrified, it is a normal reaction to be shocked, and it is normal to feel a sense of empathy for the victims and their families. However, long-term psychological health and well-being are maintained when the negative event is processed for what it was (e.g., a terrible tragedy that has affected a relatively small number of people compared to the millions who were not affected).
- Rely on your social support system of family, friends, and centers of spirituality. A large body of research has shown that the deleterious effects of exposure to harm (or the perceived exposure to harm) can be buffered by one's interactions within a social network of family, friends, loved ones, or social groups34-36.
The Age of New Media is characterized by instant access to one's work, social network, news media, entertainment, and many other aspects of daily living through devices such as smart phones and tablets. As a result, many of the potential threats to oneself from everyday stressors to acts of violence are accessible via one dynamic cyber portal. This, by its very nature, can create an illusion of an interconnection between potential harms and artificially inflate one's sense of risk. The convenient packaging of these perceived risks on a mobile device coupled with the tactical manipulations that occur through external factors (e.g., aggressors) or internal cues (e.g., our own incorrect distorted thoughts) can create a false feeling of fear, anxiety, or worry that should be processed appropriately to maintain one's psychological well-being.
American Counseling Association, www.counseling.org
American Psychological Association, Psychology Help Center, Coping with Terrorism, www.apa.org
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, www.adaa.org
National Center for PTSD, www.ptsd.va.gov
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Date of original publication: January 07, 2016
Updated: September 19, 2016