Research explains fear: Why real-time war coverage boosts anxiety
ANN ARBOR, Mich.It's not you, it's
the situation. And when a situation like the war in Iraq reminds
you of a painful memory, your brain's self-defense mechanism
will go off like an alarm, according to a University of Michigan
Your heart rate will rise, your immunity to illness
will weaken, you'll have trouble sleeping through the night,
your back could get sore, your memory will suffer and you could
have trouble breathing or accomplishing goals.
The cause? Fear.
More than one-third of Americans suffer from an
anxiety disorder at least once in their lifetime but research is
finding some proven ways to overcome such conditions, said Stephen
Maren, a U-M psychology professor who heads the University's
Emotion and Memory Systems Laboratory.
For people who have been through wars or been
exposed to terrorism, the real-time televised images of the war
in Iraq could very easily trigger flashbacks, setting off new anxiety
attacks. These flashes of fear are a part of the brain's self-defense
mechanism within all humans and animals, he noted.
Humans as well as animals are conditioned to automatically
feel fearful as soon as they are exposed to an event that reminds
them of a bad experience. For example, ring a tone before shocking
a test rat and the rat will become fearful just from the sound of
the tone alone. With war, the film "Saving Private Ryan"
caused painful flashbacks for many World War II veterans and coverage
of this second war in Iraq is certain to remind Persian Gulf veterans
and terrorism survivors of painful memories, Maren said.
Research shows the brain commands fear reactions,
helping create stress hormones that shut down non-emergency functions
of the body like immunity and digestion to help the body focus on
fighting the perceived threat or running away from it.
"The system designed to keep us from being
eaten is now eating away at us," Maren said. "I don't
think biology ever thought we'd be bombarded by so much as
we are today. We don't have predators chasing us around anymore
but a lot of people think predators have taken new forms like their
bosses at work or terrorists, and our brains learn to respond to
Such fear reactions are designed to help us survive
but researchers are finding ways to help people cope.
Avoiding things that scare you seems to only heighten
and prolong the fear. The solution to overcoming fears, anxieties
or phobias, Maren said, seems to be repeated exposure to the perceived
fears in safe conditions until we realize the perceived threats
are not a true danger. Maren predicts researchers will eventually
find even better ways to help people cope with their fears, predicting
treatment will be through psychotherapy rather than drugs.
Contact: Joe Serwach
Phone: (734) 647-1844