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The Bristol Psychotherapy

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living in the age of fear

 

 

The world today is a dangerous and frightening place…or is it? The newspapers would have you believe that this is the case, and there certainly seems to be a tangible sense of fear amongst the general public at present, but could there be a psychological reason for why this is happening? Let’s start by looking at the facts.

 

 

Did you know that you are statistically more likely to die driving to the airport than in a horrific plane crash? You’re also far more likely to die falling down a simple flight of stairs than you are to die in a natural disaster, but what about the ever-present threat of terrorism? According to an article by Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent at reason.com, you’re far more likely to die drowning in a bathtub than you are to die in an act of terrorism. There appears to be a distortion in what we believe compared with what is actually true, and this distorted perception is being propagated by a growing sense of paranoia about how the world is.

 

 

In their book Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry and Jason Freeman, freelance writer and editor, collaborate to explain the modern epidemic of paranoia in society. In the text they point to further peculiar anomalies in our social cognition. For example, “More than 40% of UK adults questioned in a recent survey thought that fourteen – fourteen! – was the earliest age at which young people should be allowed to go out unsupervised”. They state that parents had two main concerns: they were afraid that their child would be hit by a car, and they were terrified that their child might be abducted or murdered. While it is desperately sad when either of these eventualities becomes a reality, the evidence once again fails to match the popular belief. In fact numbers of child road deaths have dramatically decreased over the years (although it is uncertain as to whether this is attributed to the fact that children are no longer allowed out, or to greater road safety measures, improvements in technology, and tougher driving tests) and in most cases of child murder a parent is often the principal suspect. Similarly while national crime rates are decreasing the number of media reporting’s of violent crimes have shot up dramatically. In reality the risk of physical, psychological, and emotional ill health that may result from children living a sedentary disconnected childhood playing videogames indoors has far more worrying and costly implications for the future state of society.

 

 

So, what’s going on here at a neurobiological level? As you may have heard me mention in previous posts, our brain is equipped with a profoundly sensitive alarm system that is designed to respond to situations of uncertainty and danger. This neurological structure is called the amygdalae, two almond–shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes. The role of the amygdala is to make you pay attention to, and therefore react to, potential danger. This mechanism has evolved to make it virtually impossible to ignore potential threats. The amygdalae are also associated with memory so that any frightening experience creates an association in the brain between a certain stimulus and it’s potential for danger. This enables you to react quickly to - and to avoid - those situations in the future. The amygdalae are the biological triggers of the emotional sensation of fear and anxiety.

 

 

For centuries various institutions and authorities used fear as a disciplinary device to promote the association between and undesirable act and a feeling of fear and pain. In the not so distant past it was not uncommon for children to be physically punished for transgressions of authority – the legacy of which is still filtering down through society now. Some circles claim that the lack of physical punishment is responsible for the current child behavioural crisis being pushed by today’s media. While we would have to examine the statistical data in order to know if this ‘behavioural crisis’ is actually real or yet another media driven fear campaign one thing is clear, severe discipline problems in children tend to result from the unmet emotional needs of the child. The ‘crisis’ can therefore be explained when we look at the wider view in which we are moving away from a pain/punishment modality to one of care and love. The current parental generation is one that grew up in the punishment modality and as a result of their own discipline-by-fear relationship with their elders many have retained emotionally detached parenting styles. In other words many young people are receiving neither punishment nor love. This is however a trend we should expect to see filter out over the coming generations. Sadly the current younger generation appears to exist in an emotional vacuum, and through the media we seek to inflict a form of psychological violence on them that they wholly underserve. Essentially we are looking to pass the blame onto them rather than shoulder the responsibility for their welfare ourselves. Contrary to the ‘traditional’ view it is not the lack of punishment that is to blame but the legacy of violence itself.

 

 

But surely we live in violent times and that is why we experience so much cultural fear? In his recent work entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature (listen to his lecture here) Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, linguist, cognitive scientist, Harvard College Professor and proponent of the field of evolutionary psychology, explores the global history of violence using various empirical data to chart its prevalence through the ages. The overwhelming evidence is that, despite popular belief, as a species we are becoming less and less violent and the world is becoming a far less threatening and dangerous place than it once was. The various hypotheses that seek to explain this trend include a growth in language and printed media leading to higher levels of interpersonal and cross cultural empathy, greater global connections through different media resources and technology, decrease in superstitious and paranormal beliefs and an increase in the application of logic and reason, and the growth and development of cosmopolitan societies.

 

 

Clearly the causes of our Age of Fear are not based on experiential evidence but on distortions in the feedback we receive from various external sources. Most people intellectually know that the concept of sensationalism is leveraged by the media in order to sell units. Sadly this distortion puzzles our unconscious, non-intellectual, emotional mind and lays memory traces that will be utilised by the reactionary amygdala throughout our future relationship with the world. Such things as rolling news and a desensitisation in the acceptability threshold of violence in the media and Internet have also contributed to a growing sense of fear and anxiety. In today’s world we hear about tragedies occurring all over the globe where previously our knowledge and experiences would be contained within a relatively small community. It begs the question then, is it healthy - even necessary - to know about a catastrophe unfolding 5000 miles away? Sadly this is a moot point because the technology exists and so facilitates the amygdala’s drive to know of any potential danger no matter how remote the geographical location is in relation to ourselves.

 

 

Experts on the psychology of terrorism unanimously agree that the very worst thing you can do after a terrorist attack is to report it in the media. In a 2013 episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast the anthropologist and expert on terrorism, Scott Atran, further elucidates this point by explaining that terrorism is all about publicity. Terrorists rely on sensational news reporting to spread hysteria and panic amongst a large number of people quickly, as such terrorism wouldn’t be quite so effective if the media weren’t unwitting co-conspirators to the violence. Perhaps in this particular case ignorance really is bliss.

 

 

Interestingly in the 1970’s professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross from the University of Pennsylvania conducted several large-scale studies into the long-term effects of television use and their research led to something known as cultivation theory. Cultivation theory basically states that when people spend a high proportion of time ‘living’ in television-world (which today we might expand to include all media devices) they psychologically start to believe the social landscape portrayed therein and as a result they develop a misperception of the outside world. George Gerbner went on to coin the term mean world syndrome, a phenomenon in which individuals who are exposed to a high degree of violence on television begin to believe that the world is a far more dangerous and unforgiving place than it actually is. This little known theory could go some way to explain why we feel such a high degree of fear despite the clear statistical evidence against the necessity of such fears.

 

 

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Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

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© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Home          Symptoms         Treatments         Reviews          About Seb          Fees          Location          Contact 

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

The Bristol Psychotherapy

& Hypnotherapy Clinic

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

© SEBASTIAN T. EASTWOOD-BLOOM 2018

Sebastian Eastwood is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and counsellor in full-time private practice in Bristol, UK.

living in the age of fear

 

 

The world today is a dangerous and frightening place…or is it? The newspapers would have you believe that this is the case, and there certainly seems to be a tangible sense of fear amongst the general public at present, but could there be a psychological reason for why this is happening? Let’s start by looking at the facts.

 

 

Did you know that you are statistically more likely to die driving to the airport than in a horrific plane crash? You’re also far more likely to die falling down a simple flight of stairs than you are to die in a natural disaster, but what about the ever-present threat of terrorism? According to an article by Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent at reason.com, you’re far more likely to die drowning in a bathtub than you are to die in an act of terrorism. There appears to be a distortion in what we believe compared with what is actually true, and this distorted perception is being propagated by a growing sense of paranoia about how the world is.

 

 

In their book Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear Daniel Freeman, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford University Department of Psychiatry and Jason Freeman, freelance writer and editor, collaborate to explain the modern epidemic of paranoia in society. In the text they point to further peculiar anomalies in our social cognition. For example, “More than 40% of UK adults questioned in a recent survey thought that fourteen – fourteen! – was the earliest age at which young people should be allowed to go out unsupervised”. They state that parents had two main concerns: they were afraid that their child would be hit by a car, and they were terrified that their child might be abducted or murdered. While it is desperately sad when either of these eventualities becomes a reality, the evidence once again fails to match the popular belief. In fact numbers of child road deaths have dramatically decreased over the years (although it is uncertain as to whether this is attributed to the fact that children are no longer allowed out, or to greater road safety measures, improvements in technology, and tougher driving tests) and in most cases of child murder a parent is often the principal suspect. Similarly while national crime rates are decreasing the number of media reporting’s of violent crimes have shot up dramatically. In reality the risk of physical, psychological, and emotional ill health that may result from children living a sedentary disconnected childhood playing videogames indoors has far more worrying and costly implications for the future state of society.

 

 

So, what’s going on here at a neurobiological level? As you may have heard me mention in previous posts, our brain is equipped with a profoundly sensitive alarm system that is designed to respond to situations of uncertainty and danger. This neurological structure is called the amygdalae, two almond–shaped clusters of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes. The role of the amygdala is to make you pay attention to, and therefore react to, potential danger. This mechanism has evolved to make it virtually impossible to ignore potential threats. The amygdalae are also associated with memory so that any frightening experience creates an association in the brain between a certain stimulus and it’s potential for danger. This enables you to react quickly to - and to avoid - those situations in the future. The amygdalae are the biological triggers of the emotional sensation of fear and anxiety.

 

 

For centuries various institutions and authorities used fear as a disciplinary device to promote the association between and undesirable act and a feeling of fear and pain. In the not so distant past it was not uncommon for children to be physically punished for transgressions of authority – the legacy of which is still filtering down through society now. Some circles claim that the lack of physical punishment is responsible for the current child behavioural crisis being pushed by today’s media. While we would have to examine the statistical data in order to know if this ‘behavioural crisis’ is actually real or yet another media driven fear campaign one thing is clear, severe discipline problems in children tend to result from the unmet emotional needs of the child. The ‘crisis’ can therefore be explained when we look at the wider view in which we are moving away from a pain/punishment modality to one of care and love. The current parental generation is one that grew up in the punishment modality and as a result of their own discipline-by-fear relationship with their elders many have retained emotionally detached parenting styles. In other words many young people are receiving neither punishment nor love. This is however a trend we should expect to see filter out over the coming generations. Sadly the current younger generation appears to exist in an emotional vacuum, and through the media we seek to inflict a form of psychological violence on them that they wholly underserve. Essentially we are looking to pass the blame onto them rather than shoulder the responsibility for their welfare ourselves. Contrary to the ‘traditional’ view it is not the lack of punishment that is to blame but the legacy of violence itself.

 

 

But surely we live in violent times and that is why we experience so much cultural fear? In his recent work entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature (listen to his lecture here) Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, linguist, cognitive scientist, Harvard College Professor and proponent of the field of evolutionary psychology, explores the global history of violence using various empirical data to chart its prevalence through the ages. The overwhelming evidence is that, despite popular belief, as a species we are becoming less and less violent and the world is becoming a far less threatening and dangerous place than it once was. The various hypotheses that seek to explain this trend include a growth in language and printed media leading to higher levels of interpersonal and cross cultural empathy, greater global connections through different media resources and technology, decrease in superstitious and paranormal beliefs and an increase in the application of logic and reason, and the growth and development of cosmopolitan societies.

 

 

Clearly the causes of our Age of Fear are not based on experiential evidence but on distortions in the feedback we receive from various external sources. Most people intellectually know that the concept of sensationalism is leveraged by the media in order to sell units. Sadly this distortion puzzles our unconscious, non-intellectual, emotional mind and lays memory traces that will be utilised by the reactionary amygdala throughout our future relationship with the world. Such things as rolling news and a desensitisation in the acceptability threshold of violence in the media and Internet have also contributed to a growing sense of fear and anxiety. In today’s world we hear about tragedies occurring all over the globe where previously our knowledge and experiences would be contained within a relatively small community. It begs the question then, is it healthy - even necessary - to know about a catastrophe unfolding 5000 miles away? Sadly this is a moot point because the technology exists and so facilitates the amygdala’s drive to know of any potential danger no matter how remote the geographical location is in relation to ourselves.

 

 

Experts on the psychology of terrorism unanimously agree that the very worst thing you can do after a terrorist attack is to report it in the media. In a 2013 episode of the Point of Inquiry podcast the anthropologist and expert on terrorism, Scott Atran, further elucidates this point by explaining that terrorism is all about publicity. Terrorists rely on sensational news reporting to spread hysteria and panic amongst a large number of people quickly, as such terrorism wouldn’t be quite so effective if the media weren’t unwitting co-conspirators to the violence. Perhaps in this particular case ignorance really is bliss.

 

 

Interestingly in the 1970’s professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross from the University of Pennsylvania conducted several large-scale studies into the long-term effects of television use and their research led to something known as cultivation theory. Cultivation theory basically states that when people spend a high proportion of time ‘living’ in television-world (which today we might expand to include all media devices) they psychologically start to believe the social landscape portrayed therein and as a result they develop a misperception of the outside world. George Gerbner went on to coin the term mean world syndrome, a phenomenon in which individuals who are exposed to a high degree of violence on television begin to believe that the world is a far more dangerous and unforgiving place than it actually is. This little known theory could go some way to explain why we feel such a high degree of fear despite the clear statistical evidence against the necessity of such fears.

 

 

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