Editor’s note: Over the past weekend, a number of notable current events labelled “terrorist attacks” have dominated the media landscape with continuous coverage. In response to the extensive coverage, Dr Norrholm has written a commentary highlighting the importance of effectively managing the overwhelming influx of information. The full commentary can be accessed via the link provided.
Amidst the media’s constant quest for ratings and attention, using tactics such as highlighting terrorist attacks and exploiting fear-mongering strategies by politicians, there is a pervasive atmosphere of fear and apprehension that poses potential risks to our mental well-being.
When confronted with threats, our cognitive processing is influenced by factors such as proximity, intensity, immediacy and probability. Understanding this response is critical to effectively managing the impact of sensational news content.
In this article, the author explores the intricate interplay between our brain and body in response to perceived threats. It also draws attention to the rapid and deliberate packaging of stimuli by the news media, and offers practical strategies for avoiding succumbing to an unfounded sense of fear.
The proliferation of communication and information technologies, including smartphones, tablets and internet-based applications, has enabled individuals to gather and process vast amounts of information in short periods of time. With mobile devices providing constant and instant connection to the Internet and personal social networks, there is an ongoing debate about the potential cognitive and mental health effects of such extensive access and stimulation.
The advent of a 24-hour news cycle and the rapid dissemination of ‘breaking news’ has fundamentally changed the way we observe and interpret current events. While this constant influx of information may be beneficial for some, facilitating cognitive multitasking, there is concern that this increased accessibility may have adverse effects on individuals’ psychological well-being.
In the following sections, this article briefly delves into the realm of human emotions, specifically fear and anxiety, exploring our inherent psychological predispositions and addressing effective coping mechanisms in the context of today’s predominantly wireless age of new media.
From threat detection to the experience of fear
The ability to detect potential harm is an inherent biological process that spans different species, revealing fundamental similarities in how the brain processes threat. Insight into the human brain’s threat processing mechanisms has largely been gained from animal models, which share similar underlying processes. It is important to note, however, that there are significant differences between the mere detection of environmental threats and the conscious experience of fear in humans. Threat detection is only one facet within the complex emotional realm of fear, worry and anxiety that constitutes human states of being.
The human brain, equipped with advanced higher cortical regions, enables the activation of threat detection systems and the subsequent experience of fear and anxiety through both external and internal cues. External cues include elements in the environment that pose a potential threat to an individual’s well-being, such as poisonous creatures, heights, or social aggressors.
On the other hand, internal cues include physical states, such as heightened arousal, as well as the thoughts generated by our cognitive abilities. As humans, our threat detection systems and resulting emotions go beyond the mere assessment of danger and delve into a myriad of “what if” scenarios that encompass potential sources of harm, ranging from illness to physical injury and misfortune.
The process of threat detection and subsequent defensive responses are typically influenced by situation-specific factors such as proximity, intensity, immediacy and the likelihood of an adverse outcome. For example, a rodent placed in a cage that has previously been associated with an electric shock will freeze in response to a sound or light that signals the impending shock.
In this experimental setting, the proximity, intensity, immediacy and probability of the subsequent shock are carefully controlled, making the rodent’s behaviour highly predictable and leading it to freeze or flee based on the options available. In contrast, our perception of these four factors as humans is more complex and susceptible to manipulation by internal and external cues, as has been demonstrated.
According to LeDoux (2014), fear can be defined as a state that arises when the sentient brain becomes aware that its personal well-being, including physical, mental, social, cultural and existential aspects, is either currently or potentially threatened. Human fear involves the perception of imminent or threatening danger, and in various cases this triggers the activation of basic threat detection systems, such as phobias, panic and vertigo. The mammalian response to threat involves the activation of the autonomic nervous system to modulate physiological activities such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, and the activation of hormone release through the endocrine system, including cortisol and adrenaline.
A common feature between lower mammals and humans is that these systems are mobilised to increase the organism’s chances of surviving threatening stimuli or situations. However, a key difference lies in the activation of non-conscious threat detection systems in lower mammals compared to humans, who have conscious experiences of fear, anxiety and worry, as discussed in detail by LeDoux (2012, 2014). The human experience of fear as an emotion, as well as the development and treatment of fear-related disorders, arises from the complex interplay between the activation of basic threat detection systems, memory formation and retrieval, and our conscious awareness.
Incidents of domestic and international terrorism, and our collective societal response to these events, represent psychological phenomena that evoke conscious feelings of fear, anxiety, or worry, potentially involving the activation of basic threat detection systems. Crucially, thoughts serve as critical precursors to feelings of fear, anxiety and worry, both in normal responses to everyday events and in fear and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, as humans we have the ability to speculate about unforeseen or uncontrollable sources of harm.
Many sources of potential threat and subsequent feelings of fear and anxiety are relatively controllable, such as our dietary choices (e.g. eating high-calorie foods) or exposure to potentially dangerous stimuli (e.g. cigarette smoke or driving at high speeds). However, our sense of control can diminish when our internal dialogue involves “what if” scenarios involving danger to ourselves or our loved ones.
Assessing threats in the new media age
As noted above, there are four key characteristics of a potential threat that often capture the attention of individuals involved in terrorist acts (both domestic and international), as well as those responsible for responding to such threats (such as government officials, political figures, and the media): Proximity, Intensity, Imminence and Likelihood.
Extensive research on traumatised populations has consistently shown that individuals in closer proximity to a potential or actual threat are more likely to experience psychological post-traumatic reactions. It is widely recognised that it is normal for individuals to experience intense feelings of horror, helplessness and worry when exposed to significant threatening events, such as acts of violence or motor vehicle accidents.
Taking advantage of this phenomenon, the electronic media often manipulate information, using breaking news banners and political rhetoric to create a heightened sense of proximity to potential threats. For example, during the 2016 presidential election, one prominent candidate claimed that Syrian refugees fleeing extremist groups such as ISIS posed a significant tactical threat, potentially comprising an army of 200,000.
While this claim was hotly contested, it illustrates a psychological strategy of exaggerating a potential threat in order to increase the candidate’s appeal as a political leader. Such claims remain in the public consciousness, fueling fear and anxiety, partly due to the presence of Syrian refugees in the United States and their continued influx. However, the actual likelihood of a massive extremist army ready to launch an attack remains low.
The human response to threats can be magnified by the perceived intensity of the potential harm. In 2014, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa dominated news coverage in the United States for several weeks, leading to heightened concern about a potential global pandemic. Citizens altered their daily routines and reported significant distress due to the perceived risk of an outbreak in the country.
While the role of the Centers for Disease Control and the potential transmission of the virus through international travel should not be overlooked, the likelihood of a nationwide epidemic, let alone a global pandemic, was minimal. Only four cases were reported in the US, all from direct contact with infected persons in West Africa, out of a population of about 317 million. However, this information was often overshadowed by emotionally charged language in news reports, such as “Fears of a widespread Ebola outbreak in the United States heightened today”.
While the statement may be technically accurate, the magnitude of the threat did not change significantly. Thus, the increase in fear should have been marginal, rather than the fear-inducing language commonly used in news reports.
The sense of immediacy surrounding a potentially harmful event or action can trigger our threat detection system and create feelings of fear and anxiety. Extremist propaganda disseminated through online platforms often uses an undertone of immediacy, strategically designed to artificially heighten fear. For example, in May 2015, Islamic extremists claimed to have operatives ready to carry out attacks in several US states, with similar claims repeated after the Paris terrorist attacks later that year.
Such claims are designed to create a sense of vulnerability and instil fear. However, it is important to recognise that the recency of events and the perceived links between them are often the result of distorted or heuristic thinking rather than an indication of an actual imminent threat.
The likelihood of harm from many of the potential threats sensationalised by the electronic media is often exaggerated to increase readership at the expense of readers’ well-being. The media has to walk a fine line between reporting potential threats to the public and engaging in misleading speculation. If we define the concept of “could this happen [here or to me]?” as any probability greater than absolute zero, then many media reports would be accurate.
This definition is exemplified by programmes such as NBC’s “Rossen Reports”, where the host instructs viewers on how to survive events such as avalanches, falling through thin ice, indoor Christmas tree fires and exploding manhole covers. What is often overlooked in these reports, however, is the minuscule probability of encountering such unlikely situations. In summary, the probabilities of harm associated with the potential hazards reported by the media are typically very low, justifying minimal concern on the part of the reader or viewer.
Managing potential threats in the new media age
Practical Thinking Strategies
Amidst the constant influx of potential threats conveyed through electronic media, adopting practical thinking strategies can help navigate and manage the associated fear and anxiety. Here are some key considerations:
Avoid overestimating your risk of harm: The deliberate manipulation of potential threats, their proximity, intensity, immediacy and likelihood can create a heightened sense of danger. The constant coverage of tragic events, the constant flow of news feeds and the lack of coverage of non-events can all contribute to an exaggerated sense of alarm. Take a step back and reflect on these factors when the coverage of negative events becomes overwhelming.
Acknowledge existing uncertainty: In our daily lives, we encounter numerous uncertain factors that we often overlook, but which may pose a greater risk than recent events or potential ‘newsworthy’ threats. Crossing the street, trying new foods, driving in traffic and interpersonal interactions all carry inherent risks. Recognising this inherent uncertainty can help maintain perspective.
Maintain an awareness of probabilities and odds: When negative events and potential threats receive extensive media coverage, there is a tendency to worry disproportionately to the actual likelihood of their occurrence. It is important to remember that dwelling excessively on potential threats is as productive as obsessing over how one would spend hypothetical lottery winnings.
Repeated coverage of negative news events, combined with an inaccurate perception of the interconnectedness of these events, can distort our sense of personal risk. It is important to remember that the likelihood of an attack today is no greater than it was before events such as those in Paris or San Bernardino. It may seem otherwise due to illusory correlations or false associations between recent events, often magnified as we scroll through our news feeds.
Assess the credibility of information sources: Critically evaluating the sources of information is essential. Ask whether the reports are based on empirically collected scientific data. Consider the base rate, which refers to the number of occurrences of potential harm in a given geographic region over a given period of time. Look for multiple sources that support the findings presented. A sceptical examination of published material can provide a more realistic understanding of the actual level of risk posed by a given factor.
- Maintain everyday life routines: Continuing with regular daily activities serves multiple purposes. It provides exposure to real-world experiences and helps counter the idea of chronic and immediate threats. Engaging in social events and visiting public places like shopping malls or movie theaters can undermine the perception of constant danger. Conversely, avoiding daily activities can lead to withdrawal and excessive rumination on negative events or threats highlighted in the media.
- Limit excessive media consumption: It is important to resist the urge to excessively consume media coverage of negative events. This does not diminish the significance or psychological impact of such events. It is natural to feel horror, shock, and empathy for the victims and their families. However, maintaining long-term psychological well-being involves processing the event for what it was—a terrible tragedy that affected a relatively small number of individuals compared to the millions who were unaffected.
- Seek support from your social network: Relying on the support of family, friends, and centers of spirituality can help buffer the detrimental effects of exposure to harm or perceived exposure to harm. Research consistently demonstrates the importance of social interactions and connections in mitigating the impact of potential threats.
The Age of New Media offers instant access to various aspects of daily life, from work and social networks to news media and entertainment, all through devices like smartphones and tablets. Consequently, potential threats, ranging from everyday stressors to acts of violence, are readily accessible through a dynamic cyber portal. This accessibility can create an illusion of interconnectedness between potential harms, artificially inflating one’s sense of risk. The convenient packaging of these perceived risks on mobile devices, coupled with external factors (such as aggressors) or internal cues (such as distorted thoughts), can generate false feelings of fear, anxiety, or worry. It is essential to process these emotions appropriately to maintain one’s psychological well-being.
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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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Seth D. Norrholm, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, specializing in trauma, anxiety, and related disorders. He has published over 100 research articles and focuses on developing clinical methodologies for therapeutic intervention. His most recent work analyzes fear and anxiety in society, considering media and environmental influences. Dr. Norrholm has been featured in various media and is recognized as an expert on anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.