Living in the Age of Fear: Overcoming “The Mean World Syndrome”

(3 min read)

“America under attack!”

“At least 128 die in Paris massacre.”

“Horror at Boston Marathon.”

Despite whether you believe it or not, we’re living in a very safe time in human history.

Major improvements have been made in science, technology, communication and medicine that has taken our average life expectancy from 45 years in 1900, to nearly 80 years today (Arias & Smith, 2003).

Along with modern-day advances, we’re always facing new risks, of course. We might not encounter cholera, small pox, and yellow fever epidemics as our ancestors did only a few generations ago, but we face new threats such as terrorism that, of course, we need to be mindful of. While the diseases that our grandparents and great-grandparents faced killed millions of people around the globe, however, our threat of terrorism poses relatively little risk. Did you know that Americans today have a greater chance of being crushed to death by a piece of furniture than of being killed in a terrorist attack (Shaver, 2015)?

Despite the significantly small chance of falling victim to terror, however, news headlines highlight our risk to gargantuous proportions. When it comes to learning about all of the bad stuff that’s happening, we’re always tuned in – thanks to the wonders of social media. We live in a world in which our attention is constantly being turned towards the dark side.

As a result, we’re left overestimating the likelihood of falling victim to plane crashes, acts of terror, and other rather “horrific” incidences. And, we go to the extent of altering our behaviour to avoid encountering these things. Compared to the previous year, for example, a higher number of people chose to drive rather than fly into Las Vegas following 9/11 (LVCVA, 2002). However, as many of us know, there is actually a much greater chance of getting into a fatal car accident than falling victim to an air disaster.

What is so ironic about this mentality is that living in fear is actually more damaging to our health than any of the things we fear. According to the World Health Organization, stress is one of the leading causes of numerous fatal diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and depression (WHO, 2006; 2008). All of these are astoundingly greater killers than air disasters and terrorism combined and, yet, we continually greatly underestimate the consequences of stress.

So why the heck are we so quick to hop into the car in order to avoid a highly unlikely air/terrorism disaster, yet when it comes to preventing some of the most lethal killers in the west, we’re highly reluctant to change our ways?

“Get more sleep at night? Ha! Who has time for that?”

“Turn off my work phone after 5:00? Please! The bills don’t pay themselves!”

“Cut down on sugar and caffeine? I neeeeeeed those stimulants to keep me going at this pace!”

….Am I the only one who thinks this mentality is backwards?

If there is anything that we really need to take more seriously, it’s certainly our stress levels. And, if news headlines and social media should highlight any risk to our safety, it would certainly be the epidemic of stress-related illnesses that are sweeping our nations.

Nevertheless, any form of sensationalization and extreme thinking is not going to be of benefit. In cognitive therapy, we call this type of thinking “magnification.” In other words, making a mountain out of a molehill. There is very little risk of falling victim to terrorism, yet we view it as a major threat to our survival. On the other hand, we engage in “minimization” when we brush off the significance of having stress in our lives, when we know that it’s actually very harmful.

The problem with seeing things in such extreme terms is that it leaves no room for reality. It’s important to be realistic because this is what will keep us moving forward in the best possible way.

Maybe terrorism is more of a threat than it was fifty years ago, but isn’t it equally as valid that, overall, we’re way safer than our grandparents were when they were our age?

And yes, we’re living in a faster paced world with perhaps more demands than our great-grandparents did, but does this mean we should give allowance to our stressors? Is it not important that we try to tone our stress down a little?

When we keep in mind a reality that falls somewhere in between magnification and minimization, what we’re doing is following the Buddhist “middle path.” The middle path is oftentimes safe because it’s a manageable way of living. When things are manageable, we have some level of control over them, and when we have some level of control, we tend to relax a little. Of course, when we’re relaxed, we’re not falling victim to the very stress that puts us in true harm’s way.

Certainly, this is the mind-frame that will help us successfully achieve the long and healthy life that is, indeed, quite possible for us in our current day and age.

***


Arias, E. & Smith, B. L. (2003). Deaths: Preliminary data for 2001. National Vital Statistics Reports, 51(5). Hyattsville, MD, USA: National Center for Health Statistics.

LVCVA (2003). 2002 Las Vegas year-to-date Executive Summary. Las Vegas, NV, USA: Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.

Shaver, A. (2015, November 23). You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https:/www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/23/youre-more-likely-to-be-fatally-crushed-by-furniture-than-killed-by-a-terrorist/

World Health Organization (2006). Obesity and overweight. Retrieved from http:/www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

World Health Organization (2008). Depression. Retrieved from http:/www.who.int/mental_healthmanagement/depression/definition/en/

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2 thoughts on “

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. There was a time where I just stop reading the news because I found it was too depressing and narrow-minded. But then I found myself being a bit too extreme and closing myself off from world events. I’m now more picky about my news sources. Thanks for sharing! (and who knew furniture was so dangerous?)

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