March 24, 2003

Research explains fear: Why real-time war coverage boosts anxiety levels

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 researcher.

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 these threats."

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


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