President Roosevelt first introduced us to the soothing concept that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. He also reminded Americans that freedom from fear was one of four essential freedoms. However, almost a century later, it seems that Roosevelt’s advice has been ignored. Despite living in the safest era in history, the media’s constant barrage of fear-based news and advertisements demonstrate that fear still governs American lives.
Whether or not we realize it, fear plays a significant role in shaping our world view, decisions and behavior. The ultimate question is whether we are better or worse off because of its existence.
Here are three reasons why fear is beneficial to our lives and three reasons why it is damaging.
Fear Is Damaging to Our Lives
Instructional fear makes us focus on the wrong risks
As we fear what’s available in our memory, and the media keeps images of terror fresh, we seem to be extremely fearful of miniscule risks despite the minute chances of personally experiencing any of the vivid examples we see. This is because the media easily exacerbates our exaggerated fears. For instance, a study showed that a rise in violence portrayed in TV dramas since the late 1990s has made Americans more afraid of crime despite a fall in actual crime rates.
Additionally, after 9/11, Americans were afraid fly even though driving to the airport is more dangerous. In the year after 9/11, it was calculated that an estimated 1,500 Americans died on the road while trying to avoid the fate of the 246 victims killed in the four deadly flights. And, again, after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the media stoked nationwide paranoia about the disease that turned out be unjustified; as of the 11 total cases in America, only two were contracted within America.
It limits how we live
Being afraid of failing to meet family or even society’s expectations plays a big role in shaping our life choices. Whether blatantly or subtly conditioned by family or societal pressures and norms, these fears often linger in our unconscious, influencing our career and relationship choices. For example, people may embark on a particular education and career path solely out of fear of disappointing or being rejected by their parents. Yet even if pursuing your genuine passion and dream job, fear of failure can limit your career potential – as can fear of success. The latter, clinically deemed Imposter Syndrome, is the crippling yet common phenomenon of doubting one’s abilities and decisions.
On a personal level, being afraid of going against social convention can make people forsake true love for marriages that bring material stability. On the flip side, this same fear can also keep people trapped in doomed marriages instead of divorcing.
Fear can be manipulated by others
Being afraid of death can also influence people’s political choices. For example, two post-9/11 studies found that subjects in a group that had a higher awareness of death favored a political candidate who was perceived as a savior and who preferred an aggressive strategy against their enemies over one who opted for diplomacy. Additionally, dictators like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein, to name just a few, rose to power by exploiting people’s fears. When gripped by fear, whether it is real or imagined, it can slow or disrupt people’s rationale and abilities to make cognitive decisions. This can make them easy targets for manipulation by leaders who promise protection from a perceived threat.
Fear is Beneficial to Our Lives
It instills protective self-preservation
Maybe you were bitten by a dog when you were younger and, ever since, you’ve been afraid of dogs. This fear conditioning can be life-saving, as it tells us when we are in danger and can therefore keep us out of harm’s way. As fear generates an instinctual state of heightened arousal within us, it alerts us to be cautious even in split-second decision-making. After all, once you’ve burned yourself by touching a hot oven, or almost drowned by venturing too far out in the ocean, you’ll never do it again.
Research suggests that babies in their first few days can learn fear through the odor of their distraught mothers, which can happen even if a mother experienced a specific fear before pregnancy. This shows us that even before we are old enough to comprehend terror, we are introduced to a fight or flight instinct, which will help us develop tendencies for life-long self-preservation.
It drives personal growth and meaning
While many – if not most – people are afraid of death, we are motivated by our mortality to live as fulfilling a life as possible. According to terror management theory, many people manage their fear of death by searching for life-long meaning that will continue to exist after death. This can derive from having kids, participating in a group, like religion, that will endure beyond its members’ lives, or by producing art, music or other works that have a lasting legacy.
It can transform us to save others’ lives
Life is unpredictable, and danger can come out of nowhere. In such instances, when we are terrified by something staring us in the face, the body’s response can transform us. When under intense pressure, fear can enable people to summon enormous energy or power reserves that are normally inaccessible. The result can seem nothing short of a superhuman response, like lifting a car to save the person squashed underneath. “Under acute stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for sustained, vigorous action. The adrenal gland dumps cortisol and adrenaline into the blood stream. Blood pressure surges and the heart races, delivering oxygen and energy to the muscles. It’s the biological equivalent of opening the throttle of an engine,” explains Jeff Wise in Scientific American.
Bottom Line: Experiences in our lives may have left us with intense fears that affect our values and life choices. However, while fear can affect us negatively, it can inspire us to find and create meaning and can save us – and others – from mistakes and even harm. How does it affect your life?