I saw the new Batman movie over the weekend, and on the way into the movie theater, I saw police officers standing at the entrance. They were a reminder that it was not business as usual, and their presence no doubt raised the collective blood pressure and heart rate of those who overcame their fear and braved their way to the theater.
Fight or flight, or an outpouring of stress hormones, is intended as a life-saving response to imminent danger. There is a moment when most animals freeze, and then are stirred by their hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, followed by cortisol) to action; either to attack the danger, or to flee from it. Fight or flight served the survivors of the Colorado shootings well.
But it is not productive for those of us who watch the news on TV, who have a strong emotional response of empathy for the victims followed by fear for ourselves. We are attaching ourselves voyeuristically to the news and over-personalizing it. We become afraid to go to the movies, though the statistical risk of anything happening to us remains extremely low.
Fear is not only very powerful, emanating from a deep emotional center of our brain known as the amygdala, it is also highly contagious, spreading among us and to our children as we discuss movie theaters as if they are now suddenly a real risk. The news media, including the Internet and 24 hour cable news coverage, stokes these fears until they deteriorate into a cycle of worry.
This cycle of worry can not only put our health at risk, as stress hormones build up and put pressure on our hearts and every other organ, but the worry can also cause us to do irrational things. After 9/11, for example, people were so afraid to fly that more of us than ever took to the highways without considering that the risks there are far greater. In fact, twice as many people die on the highways every year (40,000) than have died flying in the entire history of aviation.
After 9/11, our sudden sense of vulnerability as a nation caused us to become excessively afraid of many remote risks from anthrax to bird flu to West Nile virus to SARS.
What to do?
It turns out that the same amygdala in the brain that is responsible for fear also handles courage, laughter, sexual response, and other more positive emotions. We can divert ourselves from our fears with these emotions. We can vanquish our fear by fighting through it; by actually going to the movie theater. (Dark Knight Rising is a compelling film, though I found it to be a bit long and tedious in parts).
It is possible to feel compassion for the victims of this hideous crime without over-personalizing the risk and applying it to ourselves.
Marc Siegel MD is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008. His upcoming book concerns a mysterious viral outbreak.