Friday, December 31, 2010

How to Combat Fear and Loathing in 2011

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

The late gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson once said, “Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” He wrote the drug-crazed romp, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that inspired the title for this post. Fear and loathing grow during economic slumps. News reports of double-dip recessions, inflation, deflation, terrorism, war, crime and corruption whip up a frothy mess of fear and anxiety. When we read about hate crimes, terrorism and neighborhood bomb factories, we sometimes feel helpless and confused. Fear and helplessness often inspire us to look for someone or something to blame. We want a cause for our predicament and we want to know whose butt to kick.

Conservatives blamed homosexuals for hurricane Katrina. Political pundits blame illegal immigrants for our high unemployment rate. Democrats blame Republicans, and the G.O.P. accuses the liberals. We look for scapegoats to blame for everything from global warming to the economy. Crimes of hate often start with fear-based anger.

Fear and anxiety take their toll on the nervous system. Short-term stress, like the jitters you feel before giving a speech, can be good for you by boosting norephinephrine levels, fostering creative thought and memory formation. Long-term fear and anxiety, like the stress of living with an angry alcoholic, overworks the limbic system, hippocampus and amygdala. This bad stress can mess with memory formation, weaken the immune system, and increase risk for depression and anxiety.

Anger and stress management experts know that hostile thoughts like, “They’ve messed with me for the last time!” keep people hyper-alert and sensitive to attack. It compresses you into a wound-up, ready-to-pounce state of arousal. Over time this can threaten your mental health and well-being. In the short run it can feel good to blame others for our present problems. We take the heat off of ourselves and put it outside of our responsibility. Psychologists call this the defense mechanism of projection. Like a movie projector, we light up others with the movie we have in our own mind. We see our own inner fears and hostilities acted out by the feared other.

Unfortunately, anxiety and anger narrow our ability to think creatively, problem-solve and see clearly. Our survival depends on quick thinking, keen observation and good judgment. Instead of looking for someone to blame, claim responsibility for the problem. Taking responsibility empowers us to change what we must. For example, if you feel angry about the economy, your job, your finances, I suggest that you ask yourself these five questions:
  • “What is my problem?”
  • “What did I do that contributes to my problem?”
  • “What did I neglect to do that contributes to this problem?”
  • “What can I do now to improve the situation?”
  • “Who can I enlist for support or information to help me improve the situation?”
Asking these five questions mobilizes your can-do spirit. The first question, “What is my problem?” helps you stop worrying about things that aren’t your concern. The next questions focus your thinking on solutions. In contrast, fear and loathing keep you in a steaming vat of helpless tension with nowhere to go but down.

So the next time you find yourself blaming unions, or management, the poor, immigrants, rich people, the government, take a deep-cleansing breath. Ask yourself the five questions. Feel your heart rate return to normal. The philosopher Plato wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 2011 is a brand new year, rich with possibilities. Row. Row. Row.

6 comments:

Kathryn Casey said...

Great post, Gina. All very true. Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Very timely and helpful..thank you.

DrGina said...

Thank you Kathryn, and Anonymous. Hope you enjoy a very creative and happy new year!

Diane Fanning said...

Terrific post, Gina. I saw people I knew in your descriptions and sighed. Anger and fear creates a very regenerating perpetual wheel.

DrGina said...

Thanks Diane. You're so right. Fear and anger make us rather blind. We all need to guard against that psychological trap.

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