“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR spoke these words in his first inaugural, in 1933. He may have been hyperbolic – just eight years later, his speech on the “Four Freedoms,” including the freedom from fear, begins with a sober assessment of the likelihood of America’s entry into World War II. But in the years since, and at an ever growing pace, fear itself has become directly and indirectly the thing most worthy of our fear.
- More than 18% of American adults suffer from an anxiety disorder
- The US is the most anxious nation in the world, according to the National Institute of Mental Health
- Stress-related ailments cost us $300 billion a year in medical bills and lost productivity
- According to psychologist Robert Leahy, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
- In the World Mental Health Survey, people in developing countries such as Nigeria are up to five times less likely to be clinically anxious than Americans.
- When people move from the less-anxious developing world to the US, they become as anxious as the rest of us.
- Although we have never been safer, as a society, by many measures, we continue to grow more fearful.
“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” — Niccolo Machiavelli
Unfortunately, with each year sees an increase in subscribers to Machiavelli’s premise. While the 2016 elections may be seen as the high-water mark for fear-based politics, commentators have noted the consistent “wave” elections since 2008 have been evidence of an anxious and angry electorate, regardless of ideology. And whether the chicken or the egg came first, there is a mutually-enforcing vicious cycle, as candidates play to the fear they know will most motivate voters.
It’s not just politicians, though. Our news outlets have in many ways led this charge. The 24/7 news cycle and media proliferation bring with them the ever-growing pressure to keep people watching, and fear has proven the most compelling lever to pull. This isn’t just true in national media stories; local news programs make every story into a “danger lurking in your home” hook to keep you watching. As a result, it’s not just national issues we are afraid of, it’s stalkers and predators in our neighborhood, exotic diseases, environmental hazards, and most of all our neighbors, from whom our “stranger danger” culture urges retreat. And that’s especially problematic.
It’s not only that we fill our minds more and more with thoughts that are increasingly fearful, it’s that we lack healthy outlets to process and defuse those “fear bombs.” Mental health experts agree that there are two factors beyond the barrage of fearful messages that drive us to clinical depths: the lack of a healthy network of friends and family with whom to share our fears and a cultural unwillingness to do anything with negative emotions other than bottle them up until we explode.
We can do something about this. Actually, we can do several things about it:
- We can balance our media diet with less fearful content and protest manipulative attempts to play on our fears to get ratings, sales or votes
- We can reduce our overall media intake by spending more time engaging with our neighbors and building community.