WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?
the uncanny movement of a snake
a sudden sound in the night?
the sight of the ground swimming far below as you look down from a skyscraper?
Does your heart turn over when you see lightning or hear the wail of a siren? Are you terrified that your child may be hit by a car, though you seldom worry about being run over yourself? Haunted by a secret dread of cancer or polio or the loneliness of old age?
In our complex society, no one is free from fear. Our ancestors were able to focus their fears on such visible dangers as savage animals or the hordes of Attila and Genghis Khan. But year by year our fears grow more and more complicated and irrational as we discover new sources of anxiety — new germs and neuroses, new threats from science and nature or old ones newly recognized, new pressures from our increasingly competitive way of life.
For prehistoric people fear was simply a reaction to danger, just as it is for animals living under natural conditions today. In physiological terms, fear is a signal for action, and it set.-, in motion certain body processes that help man or animal to defend himself cither by fighting or by running away. We have all felt the sudden surge of strength and speed that comes to us in moments of terror. This glandular response is as effective as ever when we are faced with immediate and tangible danger, but against such shadowy threats as loneliness, failure, cancer or the atom bomb it is as useless, and as potentially dangerous, as a warhorsc in a spaceship. Like fire, fear is useful only as long as it can be controlled, and when it rages unchecked it leaves your mind and body a wasteland.
We can examine the results of fear, hut its causes lie hidden within the larger mystery of human personality. Are we born with certain innate fears? Some thirty years ago the behaviorist psychologist Dr. John B. Watson concluded from experiments with babies that we
instinctively fear only two things, noise and falling. Later investigators have found that newborn infants react with a small, involuntary jerk to any sudden strong sensation — loss of support, a loud noise, a flash of light, a bitter taste—but they seem startled rather than frightened. It takes several weeks for them to deve.op a real awareness of danger.
Are some people naturally more susceptible to fear than others? Current research indicates that some children are born with a higher sensitivity to fear, just as they are born with different dispositions and different degrees of sensitivity to sound, falling, and physical sensations of all kinds. According to Dr. B. J. Quarrington, associate in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. “We have reason to believe that introverted children pick up fears more rapidly. When an outgoing child is frightened he lashes out, and his action probably removes the feared situation. But the introverted child is first immobilized, then runs away, and the fear stays with him.”
The way you react to fear doesn’t appear to be directly related to your I.Q. An intelligent man and a stupid one may be equally afraid, but they are probably afraid of different things. A person who is mentally retarded may not fear some real dangers simply because he isn't aware of them, but he will fear the dangers he understands, and perhaps some things that are really harmless. An intelligent person, on the other hand, knows that he needn’t fear the harmless things but is probably aware of a greater variety of potential dangers. He’s just as susceptible to wholly irrational fears, just as likely to be terrified of a garter snake although he knows it can’t hurt him.
Your resistance to fear also depends on the kind of experience you have in infancy and
childhood. Laboratory rats that arc petted and handled arc much less timid than those raised entirely in cages. In the same way, children whose background is happy and secure seem less prone to fear than those who have been either rejected or overprotected.
Even the happiest child may have fears incomprehensible to parents who don’t understand that his mind works in a different way from their own. Since he has no idea of distance and size, he may crawl unconcernedly along a window ledge twenty feet above ground or howl with terror because he thinks he’s going to disappear into the vacuum cleaner like a speck of dust.
He takes everything in his world for granted so long as it isn’t present in a startling way, but he may be frightened by anything strange and especially by any change in the appearance of familiar people and objects —his mother in sunglasses, his father asleep. If he is moved to a new nursery with large bare walls he may cry for hours unless he is reassured by the comforting presence of his teddy bear or a cherished old blanket.
“Ritual is most important for kids around age four,” Dr. Quarrington says. “You can produce real anxiety attacks by giving them a glass of water before their bedtime story instead of after. At this age fears are supposed to be most numerous because this is when the discrepancy is greatest between what they see in their world and what they can do about it.”
A small child’s worst fear is that his world will suddenly be shattered by the disappearance of his mother or another person he depends on. Being left by himself or with a baby sitter may frighten him until he realizes that his mother will always come back. If he doesn’t learn this in infancy, his first day continued on page 70
continued on page 70
What are you afraid of? continued from page 29
“Freud said patients who feared snakes or knives
really feared sex or aggression”
in kindergarten or in hospital will be agonizing.
When a child is startled or hurt, his fear often spreads to everything connected with the frightening experience. Early experiments demonstrated that a child,
scared by a gong just as he is shown a rabbit, afterward may fear not only anything small, white and furry, but also the room and everything in it including the experimenter. Through this conditioning process, children continually ac-
quire fears that puzzle parents if they don’t happen to see the frightening event.
One mother in Toronto left her small daughter playing peacefully in the garden, then returned a few minutes later to find the child crying at the door. For days
the little girl screamed in real terror whenever she was taken outside. By leaving the door open and reassuring her that they were nearby, her parents gradually induced her to venture into the garden for short periods, but the reason for her fear remained a mystery until a neighbor mentioned that workmen in the street had suddenly started up a pneumatic drill just when the child had been left alone in the yard.
Since this response is quite irrational you can't talk a child out of his fear any more than you can explain to a dog that the car won’t always take him to the veterinary. Instead you should arrange occasions on which the thing he fears will be associated with things he especially enjoys.
When children catch fear from adults and playmates, on the other hand, they can sometimes be comforted by a reasonable explanation. Like animals, children sense moods so quickly that you can’t fool them if you happen to be afraid of thunder or mice. Instead of trying to hide your own feelings you should say casually, “I don’t like it much either,” and perhaps talk a little about the frightening thing. If a child is afraid of the dark, for instance, you can divert him by showing him the night world with its stars and birds and friendly moonlight. Terror of darkness was once thought to be instinctive, but psychologists now believe that children pick it up from chance remarks or attitudes of grownups. They sometimes use it as an excuse to keep mother from going away at bedtime.
Children fear monsters
Many psychiatrists think that fear of animals is closely though obscurely related to a child’s unconscious fear of his parents, which develops from his instinctive resentment of their authority. Even if he never expresses his rebellious fantasies, he feels that his mother and father are aware of them and will punish or desert him. His anxiety about this ambivalent relationship is converted into a fear of animals because he can count on his parents to sympathize and protect him against the fierce dog or the dragons in his dreams.
Nightmares about animals seem to haunt children of all ages, but other fears gather and shift like storm clouds as the child grows older. He grows less fearful of noise and sudden movement and strangeness, and more fearful of the dark and of imaginary monsters. He begins to worry about things that haven’t happened yet, and especially about his own ability to cope with them.
As we grow older our fears grow more diffuse, more complex, more clouded with self-doubt. As adults, we disguise our mistrust of our own impulses—guilt, hostility, sexual desire—as phobias about apparently harmless things outside ourselves. Freud found that patients who feared snakes or knives were really afraid of their hidden drives of sex and aggression, while fear of falling represented fear of a moral lapse or a failure in business. Other researchers traced fear back to our first experiences: claustrophobia stemmed from unconscious memories of birth, reinforced by later memories of being shut in small places, and agoraphobia, fear of open space, arose
from being momentarily left alone just after birth.
“Those nineteenth - century classifications — claustrophobia and so on — are thought of as symptoms rather than as separate illnesses nowadays. You can't link specific fears with specific causes,” says Dr. John Rich, clinical director of Thistlctown Hospital, for the emotionally disturbed, at Thistletown, Ont.
Contemporary psychiatrists find our fears too complicated for these simple labels, but they still trace them to causes within ourselves, not external things. One man in Toronto who saw a psychiatrist, for instance, was afraid of driving anywhere except to work. An executive who had gained his reputation by a series of flukes, he was terrified of making a serious mistake in business. As long as he stayed in his office he could avoid responsibility by referring decisions to his staff. Another man’s horror of streetcar tracks remained a mystery until his doctor discovered that his fear was focused on the tracks that led to his mother-inlaw’s house.
According to Dr. Quarrington, “A person who fears crowds is not so much afraid of the crowd as he is of his own reactions; he’s afraid he’ll scream or do something embarrassing. People who are afraid of heights are really more afraid of jumping than of falling. They don’t avoid high places the way a child avoids the dark. Instead their suicide speculations lead them to arrange things so that they confront heights often.”
You can die of fright
Many of us have a tendency to court danger because mild fear is actually a physical stimulant. Racing, riding a roller coaster, even watching a bullfight or a horror film gives us a feeling of heightened awareness, closely related to sexual stimulation. The RAF pilot John Magee, best known for his poem High Flight, spoke of spins as having “a sort of morbid attraction for me, possibly because they were so terrifying.”
The physical symptoms of fear — trembling, clammy hands, dry mouth, pounding heart — are all part of your body’s automatic response to danger. Instantly. your brain sends impulses through your nervous system to your organs, endocrine glands and involuntary muscles. To prepare you to fight or run away, your heart beats faster in order to pump more blood to your muscles, your blood pressure rises, your breath comes more rapidly to ensure a plentiful supply of oxygen. Your eyes widen as the pupils dilate to give a better view of the danger. Your mouth feels dry because the flow of saliva decreases as digestive activity is suspended. You shiver because the tiny muscles around the roots of the hair of the body contract, causing goosefiesh and a bristling of the hairs like the tail of a frightened cat. You may feel a queer inward shock as the arteries of your abdomen contract.
At the same time your adrenal glands, two small bean-shaped glands just above your kidneys, discharge their stimulating fluid into your blood. Adrenaline quickens the action of your heart and respiratory muscles and lends strength to the muscles of your arms and legs. Meanwhile your liver produces extra sugar for energy and a substance that makes your blood clot more easily if you are injured.
Intense fear can hit your body so hard that you die of physical shock. This is how, in primitive tribes, voodoo victims are frightened to death by a witch doctor's antics. You may react to a slightly less drastic fright by fainting, freezing
like a rabbit, losing your memory or even falling asleep. This last response is so common among Balinese natives, according to anthropologist Dr. Margaret Mead, that a word meaning “afraid-sleep” is part of their language.
Prolonged fear, unreleased in action, keeps you mobilized in a state of emergency that exhausts your whole body in the same way that bracing yourself to push an immovable wall would soon exhaust your muscles. If the stress continues the adrenal glands increase their hormone output and eventually wear themselves out. The chemistry of your body is thrown out of balance, your resistance to heat and cold and infection and injury collapses, and you are left vulnerable to every kind of illness. According to Dr. Hans Selye, of Montreal, the world-famous pioneer in the study of stress, “We are just beginning to see that many common diseases are largely due to errors in our adaptive response to stress, rather than to direct damage by germs, poisons, or other external agents. In this sense many nervous and emotional disturbances, high blood pressure, gastric and duodenal ulcers, certain types of rheumatic, allergic, cardiovascular, and renal diseases appear to be essentially diseases of adaptation.”
Fearlessness may be craziness
The effect of continued mental and physical stress is seen most dramatically in battle fatigue in soldiers after long exposure to combat. Dr. John Rich, of Thistletown, explains, “According to Pavlov, who produced this condition in dogs by environmental stresses, a function of the cortex of the brain actually wears out. These bomb-happy people may appear fearless by running straight into danger, but their actions are really crazy.”
Colonel J. A. Dextraze, DSO, OBE, commandant of the Royal Canadian School of Infantry, says, “The amount of fear a soldier can take depends on his temperament. No two individuals react the same. I believe that every man suffers fear in various degrees; there are no fearless men in war.”
Dr. Douglas D. Bond, a psychiatrist who studied the effects of fear on men in the U. S. Air Force in World War II, reported, “Fears constituted the greatest single cause for the elimination of fliers following their training and before they entered combat, and were second only to battle wounds in necessitating long-term ‘grounding’ in the largest combat air force ever assembled.” Many pilots developed strange phobias that actually increased their danger by leading them into serious errors of judgment. Some bailed
out unnecessarily while others were so afraid of parachuting that they rode damaged aircraft into a crash landing. Still others were grounded because of physical symptoms ranging from airsickness to real blindness caused by a terrifying sight.
In a similar way Norm Bríoux, a successful stock-car driver in Toronto, now retired from racing, was handicapped by stress. He says, “I raced about six years, and I had a lump in my throat all the time, probably from tension. I couldn’t keep it clear and 1 had to give up smok-
ing. This trouble with my throat was one of the reasons I quit.”
Are we more sensitive to fear than our forefathers were? Lord Moran, a British physician who served in both World Wars, says, “There is evidence that the armies of long ago were recruited, broadly speaking, from men who did not feel fear. Their courage seems to have had its roots in a vacant mind. Men suffered more in the i 914-18 war not because it was more terrible but because they were more sensitive; their resistance to fear had been lowered. Some subtle change in
men’s nature which was not the effect of the war, but of the conditions of life before the war, had taken place.”
Other observers have suggested that anxiety springs inescapably from the pressure to conform and succeed that dominates our culture. According to the world-famed psychiatrist Erich Fromm, “Certain factors in the modern industrial system make for the development of a personality which feels powerless and alone, anxious and insecure.” Some psychiatrists claim that modern techniques of communication increase our suscep-
tibility to panic. The contagion of fear was dramatically demonstrated by Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast about a “Martian invasion” in 1938, which terrified an audience already unnerved by the first stirrings of world war.
Our own generation lives in the shadow of the atom bomb. Colonel Dextraze says, “Fear is certainly one of the serious problems of modern warfare. In World War II where, for the most part, troops fought shoulder to shoulder, the close proximity of several comrades gave one some measure of reassurance and helped him combat fear. In Korea where fighting was done on a wider front and the density of troops facing the enemy was much lower, a feeling of isolation was an added problem. On the nuclear battlefield where infinitely greater dispersion will be necessary and where the possibility of destruction from nuclear devices has been added to all the other conventional means, troops will be under even greater emotional stresses than in the past.”
Fear haunts the council chambers of the nations and the corridors of our crowded mental hospitals. In countries more materially prosperous than any in history, the annual sale of tranquilizing drugs has soared into millions. Now, when medical research is bringing under control diseases that would once have killed or crippled—polio, diabetes, syphilis, pneumonia — we are more obsessed with anxiety about our health than ever before. Though the life expectancy of a child born today is almost twenty years longer than that of his grandfather, we have developed such horror of death that we cloak it in euphemisms and the genteel formalities of undertakers.
How can we fight fear, this shadowy enemy that comes to us from nowhere and may vanish as suddenly or slip like quicksilver into another guise? We have discarded the idea that you can overcome fear by forcing yourself to face ordeals, like getting back on the horse that threw you.
“I’m inclined to think that you don’t get used to fear in this way,” says Dr. Mary Northway, of the Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto. “Attacking a frightening thing over and over again still gives you a pain in the pit of your stomach each time, a pain that can actually harm you. Sometimes you might just as well let a phobia be as go to a psychiatrist and have it dug out, as long as the fear isn't one that limits you severely. You have to be rational about your fears and accept them as part of the pattern of your life.”