Commentary

By Jennifer K. Bauer

People have very different reactions to fear.

Some lash out in anger while others freeze. Some scream; others run away or hide.

What do you do? 

When faced with a perceived threat to life or livelihood, our automatic response is fight or flight. We’re born with this instinct, sharpened and honed by eons of dangers confronted by our ancestors. At least, it kept them alive long enough to reproduce or you wouldn’t be reading this. The emotions of anger and fear carried them to safety or crushed the threat with aggressive action. They are two sides of the same coin. Anger seeks to cause fear. Fear transforms into anger when someone feels cornered.

We’re living through a time when visible waves of anger and fear are rippling through America. I think it’s helpful to get off the ride once in a while and take a good look around. 

Anger and fear are tied to our desire for safety and control. These days, the list of possible things that could lead to doom is a never-ending scroll on social media, refreshing every second. People are banding together based on the similarity of their lists.

The reality is, the list of things we actually have control over is much, much shorter. 

In fact, the only thing you can truly control is yourself.

Our brains have changed little over the last several thousand years, while the world has changed immensely. In the last 20 years, technology has flooded daily life with information and entertainment. It’s an endless buffet of sweet, sour and sad stimulation. The brain reacts according to training. A news headline or Tweet can trigger the same wave of emotion as a snake underfoot. The brain evolved to act fast, not ponder whether a threat is physical or abstract. 

And, while my ancient cave-dwelling ancestor may have stumbled into a den of vipers once in her life, she didn’t go there every day, let alone 52 times a day. That’s how many times Americans checked their smartphones on average in 2018, according to one survey. It’s likely that number has gone up during the pandemic. The year 2020 has seen the rise of the word doomscrolling: the act of continuing to look for bad news online even though it makes you feel sad and depressed. The victim looks for someone to blame and for some place to send his or her fear-anger. The cycle continues.

As we head into fall, toward a contentious election with the pandemic droning on, a little self-reflection could go a long way toward changing the cycle. Clear minds are not ruled by fear and anger.

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