The Next Osama Syndrome: America, the Fearful

While chronic, viral fear has made us hyper-vigilant and hyper-suggestible, it has simultaneously made us less prepared, less likely to defend ourselves appropriately, and more likely to get hurt.
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There is very little that changes people -- or the culture of a country -- as much as fear does. This is particularly true of chronic fear.

The landscape of America has changed quite a bit since the Cold War when we evolved rapidly from an Allied country at war to a Western culture of constant terror. With the enemy gone and no acute situation to rally us together, we spent nearly twenty years building bunkers in vague anticipation of complete annihilation.

From there, advertisers -- prompted by major business interests and stockholders -- made it their marketing strategies to infect us with a very calculated form of viral fear. They would convince us that the very same threat of destruction (social, physical, political) was always around the corner, unless of course, we had their product.

What this has done to us collectively is the same thing it has done to us individually. It has made us profoundly vulnerable.

You would think that someone who is chronically afraid would be more likely to be self-protective rather than less, but it is actually the reverse.

People who have been traumatized repeatedly, especially those with histories of severe childhood abuse, seem to be the least likely to take precautionary measures (e.g., avoid walking through a bad part of town at night or lock their doors and windows) and the most likely to wind up in situations that recreate the original trauma. Their chronic fear leaves them insensible, literally. They do not see what is right in front of them.

Chronic fear is always about what's a possibility, what may be around the corner, not just this Osama (with whom we still haven't properly dealt), but the next Osama. It is not present, prepared or protective. It is projective. In real time, it is not useful in any way whatsoever.

Thus, while chronic, viral fear has made us hyper-vigilant and hyper-suggestible (likely to buy anything that is being sold to us so long as it has the words "safety," "antiseptic," or "protection" printed somewhere on the package), it has simultaneously made us less prepared, less likely to defend ourselves appropriately, and more likely to get hurt.

Nothing moves us faster, spreads faster or stops us faster than fear. It takes 1/12,000th of a second for the sound of something moving in the bushes to make our hearts beat out of our chests, our intestines to contract and our hands to sweat.

This massive physiological response involves only a very small part of our brain -- the limbic system, which includes the Amygdala, the Hippocampus, the Fornix and Cingulate gyrus.

Some people call this the Lizard Brain or Hind Brain because it is located properly in the center of all that gray matter between the brain stem and the mid brain and it operates on primitive pistons set only for survival. It doesn't think. Thinking requires the cortex and frontal lobes of the brain, which process, moderate, integrate and execute with judgment. The limbic system reacts.

Which is good if you know precisely what to do and when to do it.

Knowing that is what separates those who fight, flee, and freeze.

A recent case in point: On July 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 left the runway at LaGuardia Airport in NY and within three minutes had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Once it was clear that the plane had neither exploded nor spontaneously submerged, the division between fight, flight and freeze began.

Those who were prepared moved towards the exits and stood on the wings. The crew, for instance, due to countless hours of training, remained task-oriented and efficient despite their dire circumstances and certainly a substantial dose of their own adrenalin. Those whose fight-flight response was unrestrained panicked.

They jumped into the water without any flotation devices, thrashing in cold water, subjecting themselves to hypothermia and drowning. Others -- and this is the hardest to believe but is actually the cause for most airline crash fatalities -- sat in their seats and waited to be told what to do as jet fuel burned around them.

What essentially happens with fear when it is unresolved and pervasive, is we undergo what clinicians call "psychic numbing." We are neither able to deal with the danger, nor are we able to discharge the energy and engage the cortical or reasoning centers of the brain.

The effects of this sort of fear are to be found in abundant evidence all around us: It surrounds us in all media, at our local supermarkets, and in this country's vast dependency on drugs (both illicit and legal).

I have dealt with trauma of all kinds for more than 25 years. I have helped survivors of sexual abuse and rape, veterans of several wars, victims of car crashes and airline disasters, injured and stressed police officers, fire fighters, and medics. I know numbing when I see it. It can look normal enough. It can walk, talk, go to work, and play. But emotional adaptability has been profoundly flattened. Responses are mitigated and limited. Reactions are out of bounds and out of context. Relationships are either distant or overly enmeshed and dramatized.

Our culture has shown the same overall symptom picture as the trauma patient: heedlessness to real danger, obsession with fear-inducing stimuli, hypersensitivity to non-existent threats, deliberate deadening by lurid fixations on scandal and drama, distraction through drugs, and self-soothing with incessant eating.

One slow, observant walk through Wal-Mart is all we need to see that we have become a nation of fattened calves, stuporous, dependent, unable to see anything past the feedbag attached to our chins.

Terrorists may be insane, but they are not stupid. They watch us shop, and eat, and worry about consumption indices and the next Osama and laugh because we still haven't gotten the first one.

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