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We Don’t Need To ‘Keep Fear Alive’

by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had dueling rallies in DC in October, 2010. Stewart’s was “Rally to Restore Sanity” and Colbert’s was “March to Keep Fear Alive!

Obviously, Colbert is a great satirist who was poking fun, since we sure don’t need a rally to keep fear alive. Alarming messages are all around us, like the news about global warming or the “Threat Level Orange” announcements every few minutes in the airport.

Some of those messages are true and worth heeding. For example, dumping carbon into the atmosphere must inevitably make the planet hotter; it’s basic physics.

But others are wildly exaggerated: the actual odds of a bad event on your airplane flight are “Threat Level Chartreuse” — a bucket of green paint with a drop of yellow.

How do we tell the difference between real threats and bogus ones? (This is important for many reasons; for one, chasing fake threats takes away resources from real issues.)

But it’s tough to do, since evolution has given us a brain with what scientists call a “negativity bias” that makes it prone to feeling threatened. This bias developed because the ancient mammals, primates, and early humans that were all mellow and fearless did not notice the shadow overhead or slither nearby that CHOMP! killed them. The ones that survived to pass on their genes were nervous and cranky, and we are their great-grandchildren, sitting atop the food chain, armed with nuclear weapons.

Stephen Colbert, relax: Mother Nature is on your side, already working hard to keep fear alive.

Your brain is continually looking for bad news. As soon as it finds some, it fixates on it with tunnel vision, fast-tracks it into memory storage, and then reactivates it at the least hint of anything even vaguely similar. But good news gets a kind of neural shrug: “uh, whatever.”

In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.

All this makes human beings super-sensitive to apparent threats. Basically, in evolution, there are two kinds of mistakes: (1) You think there is a tiger in the bushes but there isn’t one, and (2) You think the coast is clear, no tiger in the bushes, but there really is one about to pounce.

These mistakes have very different consequences. The first one will make you anxious, but the second one will kill you. That’s why Mother Nature wants you to make the first mistake a thousand times over in order to avoid making the second mistake even once.

This hard-wired tendency toward fear affects individuals, groups (from couples to multinational corporations), and nations. It makes them overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate resources.

Of course we need to deal with real tigers, real threats, ranging from leaky roofs to the shaky economy, national debt, terrorism, and global warming. But “keeping fear alive” for tigers that are nonexistent, manageably small, or made out of paper has huge costs.

At the personal level, fear feels bad, wears down physical and mental health, and makes people duck for cover in life and play small. (These individual costs also drag down the economy.)

Nationally, feeling threatened gets intensified by the classic drumbeat of alarms about inner and outer enemies from people who are good at trumping hope with fear. The result? Paper tiger paranoia – which makes us over-invest in threat protection, under-invest in infrastructure, miss real tigers because we’re flooded with warnings about illusory or exaggerated ones, and over-react in ways that create new real tigers (like America’s longest war, in Iraq).

The solution? It’s to have the courage to see real tigers clearly and to deal with them effectively – and to refuse to be frightened and cowed by boys and girls crying tiger.

It also helps to get more skillful with your own brain: to understand how it makes you needlessly afraid, whether you’re talking with a family member, doing a project at work, or watching the news – and most importantly, what you can do about that by using your mind alone to change your brain for the better.

Which is what I’ll be exploring in my upcoming posts, including how to calm down threat reactivity, feel stronger and safer, recognize both real tigers and paper ones, and realize that in most situations most of the time, it is not “Threat Level Orange.”

Meanwhile, let’s not do anything more to keep fear alive. Mother Nature and Fox News are already doing a very good job there. Instead, let’s do more to keep courage alive.

A great first step is to laugh at paper tigers.


Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and Huffington Post, and he is the author of the best-selling Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. He writes a weekly newsletter – Just One Thing – that suggests a simple practice each week that will bring you more joy, more fulfilling relationships, and more peace of mind and heart. If you wish, you can subscribe to Just One Thing here.

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Dr. Hanson is a neuropsychologist in San Rafael, California. His practice includes adults, couples, families, and children, as well as psychological assessments of children and adults related to temperament, school performance, and educational and vocational planning. For more information, please visit his listing on the Therapist Directory

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