Thursday, June 07, 2012

In Search Of An Antidote To Fear

A while back, a new parent introduced herself to me via email before the school year started, informing me she was pregnant, then requesting that the school implement a set of new health and safety procedures because, as she put it, "the chances of me dying this year are quite high." Specifically, she was concerned about a strain of influenza headed our way that was expected to be particularly dangerous for pregnant women. 

I didn't like the sound of that "quite high," especially since this woman had a medical background. My first thoughts were about whether or not we should even have school that year, at least in the fall. After all, she wasn't the only pregnant woman in our parent community, and the last thing I wanted was to have dead pregnant women on our hands. Before freaking out entirely, however, I performed my own internet search, and at first what I found did freak me out. Everyone was at a higher risk for for death this coming flu season, it seemed: young children, the elderly, people with chronic respiratory issues. Despite my increasingly sweaty palms I kept digging, searching, I suppose, for anything to make me feel a little better. Certainly, we all weren't going to have to spend a year in bubbles. Right? That's when I found the official CDC prediction: if a pregnant woman contracted this particular flu bug versus any other flu bug, the odds of her dying from it went from 1 in a million to 4 in a million.

That's a four times greater chance of death than normal, but it still didn't come close to qualifying for "quite high" in my book. 

Anyone who has ever been involved with public policy knows that scare tactics work. If you can frighten people, be it about commies or banksters or sunburns or vaccinations, you can pretty much get some folks, even the majority, to do whatever you want. This is nothing new, of course, "leaders" have been both sincerely and manipulatively employing fear as a persuasive tactic for as long as there have been people. I doubt, however, that there has ever been a time when we've had so many things to fear, if only because most of us are so media saturated that it's next to impossible to ignore the next set of alarm bells.

That said, I think it's equally true that we're all aware of this phenomenon and believe that we have erected within ourselves a set of filters that allow us to at least sometimes determine what is a mere scare tactic and what is an actual cause for concern.  Sadly, we all have our own way of assessing risk. Some of us turn to "trusted" authorities or statistics, some of us turn to religion, some of us rely on erring on the side of caution, some of us throw caution to the wind, and all of us believe any damn thing just so long as it sounds like something we already believe.

I, for instance, have no fear of terrorists despite what authorities tell us, and am greatly agitated by all the new hoops I've had to learn to jump through because of the "irrational fears" of others. In all honesty, I base my attitude on a bedrock belief that most people, most of the time, really don't want to hurt other people and almost no one wants martyr themselves. I base my position on the statistical fact that my family and I are much more likely to be struck by lightening than to be victims of terrorism. I base my skepticism on the knowledge that cynical corporations stand to make billions in profits by keeping us afraid then promising to make us "safe" with their machines and armaments, and processes. And I base my opinion on the philosophical idea that if someone really does want to wantonly and randomly kill and injure, they're going to find a way to do it, no matter what precautions I've taken, so why let the crazies win by living a less free, less joyful life?  I mean, isn't that the goal of terrorists anyway, to make us afraid? When I have to undress, then re-dress, just to board an airplane, it sure makes me feel like the terrorists have won. (Although, you know, I'd be all in favor of mandatory nude flying: that would be a fail safe way to make sure people aren't hiding bombs in their clothing.)

Naturally, you can poke all kinds of holes in my position. It's easy because fear is always about the unknowable future. All you need to do is play a "What if?" game with me to show me all the ways that I'm a fool for not being afraid, just as I can play a "What if?" game with climate change deniers who feel they will be living a less free, less joyful life if they are made to give up their SUV.

It will be too late by then, the terrorists may have killed us all or the globe might be aflame, but the future will always sort out those who were right from those who were wrong, and saying, "I told you so," will amount to less than a whistle in the wind.

At first I was furious with the pregnant mom and her irrational fear. After all, she was a professional, she should have known that infinitesimal times 4 is still infinitesimal. She should know better than to get people worked up unnecessarily. We went ahead and implemented some of her health and safety suggestions, however, since none of us really could see the future and the added annoyance, we felt, wasn't so great that we were willing to risk a potential catastrophe. In hindsight, of course, it was all ridiculous, but I can't deny the manifest truth that there weren't any dead pregnant women at Woodland Park that year, so maybe it wasn't.

Parenting is particularly fertile ground for fears, both rational and irrational. We all know that what happens with and to children during their early years can stay with them for a lifetime, and it doesn't help that there are people out there (e.g., medical quacks, education reformers, parenting gurus) who are intentionally planting seeds of doubt and fear.  Every one of us can look back and find formative people and events in our youth, good and bad, so we know, even without research and data, that it's true. What we don't know, what we can never know, at least with any certainty, is exactly what those formative people and events will be for our own children, so we all pick and chose, do our best, employ our faulty filters, and hope for the best, hopefully without too much anxiety.

There is precious little longitudinal research, studies that have followed individuals throughout their lives in such a way that scientists can determine what exactly it is that leads to "successful" or "productive" or "long-lived" or "contented" adults. The studies I've looked at (e.g., The Perry School Project, the Terman Life Cycle Study) tend to conclude that traits like sociability, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and curiosity are the building blocks of a long, good life. 

None of these traits grow well in the soil of fear. The Terman study in particular pointed to catastrophic thinking as being one of the traits most strongly connected with shorter life, and while a certain amount of caution is, of course, a good thing, obsessing about dying from the flu or at the hands of terrorists not only makes your life less pleasant, but can kill you.

The only thing that grows well in the soil of fear is more fear, and that's a garden none of us want to grow.

To suggest that we reject fear is so trite as to be meaningless. To suggest we be fearless is a denial of human nature. But we do know that unexamined fear will kill us. We also know that a good life is built from sociability, self-motivation, conscientiousness, and curiosity: I can only assume that it's somewhere in there, and only in there, that we'll find the antithesis of fear, and the path best taken into the unknown.

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Meagan said...

I'm curious about the extra measures she suggested? I mean, the chances of dying from flu (any flu) are slim, but the chances are higher for certain groups, and if non-ridiculous community efforts can reduce the risks, why is that a bad thing? I mean, 4 in a million is a very small percentage, but when you spread it across the country (population > 310 million), that's a surprisingly large group of unnecessary deaths. Then there are the less devastating but much more common results of the flu, like really miserable illness on the better end, long term health effects and community economic impact on the worse end.

I agree that fearmongering is manipulative and annoying, but even if the chances of dying aren't high, it seems like preventing the flu is worthwhile.

Teacher Tom said...

Meagan, We already had/have a common sense regime of hand washing and other measures, based on CDC recommendations, designed to reduce the spread of illness.

This mom asked us to implement extra mandatory hand-washings. This was a 2 hour class, and had we done what she originally wanted, we would have had 6 mandatory hand washing times throughout the day (one every 20 minutes), with several other "events" that would have triggered additional hand washing. Given that studies show that young children touch their mouth or nose an average of once every 3 minutes, this would have meant some kids would have done nothing other than wash hands. We finally settled on adding one extra hand washing time plus increased adult diligence, and permission for her to skip working in the classroom (we're a cooperative).

Given that the flu, when it did hit us, actually turned out to be a milder than normal one, and we all wound up catching it anyway, it was all a kind of kabuki.

Floor Pie said...

Tom, don't forget that we also abandoned the "serve yourself" snack for the 2-year-olds and some parents chose to toss out any food that even briefly came into contact with a child's fingers.

Also, when Mr. Black had the dreaded flu my daughter and I were not allowed at school. He was awfully sick for a few days and kept himself quarrantined in our bedroom. The kids and I didn't catch it even though none of us had been vaccinated and the kids did not have access to tamiflu.

Those were the days.

But we've all got our phobias. I'm going come back and comment on how I manage my own phobias when I have more time tonight...

Clare said...

Hiya, I am the queen of irrational fears when it comes to my children, sometimes to the point of it all being rather overwhelming, particularly with all that 'useful' information on the internet. During my recent episode my husband commented that my proposal was just a knee jerk reaction and I said i loved a knee jerk reaction cos it makes me feel like I am doing something. I was a lawyer before I became a full time mum, so you would think I would be able to add some rational thought to my processes.....

I live in Australia and during summer I have no fear of sharks in the ocean, but would have sleepless nights if I thought the children had sunburnt cheeks

So I guess with me its things that I feel I can/should control which worry me the most.....

I keep a bottle of rescue remedy for this purpose

Floor Pie said...

So, about my own phobias and anxiety. Left unchecked, it can take me to some very unreasonable and unhappy places. Willpower doesn't really work. Neither does seeking reassurance from other people (who typically are mired in their own phobias don't have patience for such foolishness).

Instead, I've found it's actually more effective to engage the fear just a little. Check in with myself, gently.

How likely is it that the thing I'm afraid of will actually happen?

And if it does happen, what will I do? What's the plan? Sometimes it helps to come up with a plan. Small, manageable things that one can actually do.

It's important to remember that anxiety isn't a conscious choice to be silly. It's a physical condition, no different from a cold or flu, targeting our weaker spots and triggering those fears into unreasonable action.

Diet and exercise help. Self care helps. Supplements like Vitamin D and fish oil and a gentle dose of Vitamin Zoloft help me tremendously.

If there's someone in your life whose anxiety seems like it's truly unhealthy for them, it's okay to gently suggest that they seek help from a therapist and/or antidepressants. No one should have to live their life that way...especially new parents.

Allison said...

I'm totally with Floor Pie that having a plan helps. Here's my story.

I was afraid of being killed in a random act of violence. This was not a rational thing to believe- my city of ~200k sees only a couple of murders per year, but I couldn't rationalize it away. I didn't let the fear change my behavior, but it did use up a tremendous amount of my energy and interfere with sleep most nights.

Then, when I was in my mid-twenties, I took a self-defense class for women. I signed up because my friend was going and invited me along, and I did not expect it to have such a big impact. But just knowing that if something happened and I was attacked, I could do something about it- I wouldn't just die- dissolved the fear almost completely.

Iklan Internet Murah Efektif Berkualitas Indonesia said...
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