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Fear Factory: How Unfounded Worry Affects Your Brain, Beliefs, and Behavior

So many parents tell me that their number one reason for not homeschooling is fear. Hands down, they are simply afraid. For many of them, their kids are begging to be homeschooled, but mom or dad keep closing the conversational door. Let's take a moment to unpack irrational fear and step into some attitudes and actions that will bear a positive impact on our brains, our beliefs, and our behaviors.

When I was a little girl, I had this irrational fear that someone was hiding under my bed with a really long sword just waiting until I went to sleep to eradicate my life from the earth. When it was time to go to sleep, I would practice my track and field long-jump skills by leaping onto the bed from two feet away so that the imaginary intruder couldn’t grab me by the ankles. Once I made it safely to the surface, I would cover my head with a blanket--because apparently, the blanket made me impervious to sword-induced injury. But one night as I lay there trying to fall asleep, I suddenly had the realization that for a sword to pierce through both my mattress and my box springs and still do damage to my body, it would have to be so long that it wouldn’t actually be able to fit under the bed! It was an aha moment in my prepubescent brain! And armed with a tiny grain of logical evidence, I was able to talk myself out of that irrational fear and start climbing up onto the bed like a normal human being.

Though it’s a simplistic example, sometimes we do need to talk ourselves (and those within our realm of influence) into a little logical analysis and out of the paralyzing and often unreasonable side effects of fear.

If you’ve ever dealt with fear, you know that it causes a variety of human responses, many of them irrational. Since fear is currently sweeping across the globe in pandemic fashion right now, I wanted to take a moment to look at the causes of fear, the impact of fear, and our response to fear. That way, we can properly address it, apply a little logic, and break ourselves free from its paralyzing grip. So, let’s talk a little bit about fear, what it does to your brain and body, and how to manage it.


From a physiological perspective, fear has a number of deleterious effects on the body and brain. Fear hijacks our emotional response system, which is what causes people to become irrational. It damages the hippocampus (part of the limbic system that impacts short-term, long-term, and spatial memory), it impairs long-term memory formation, and it impacts our ability to regulate emotion in general. A study by the Pacific Lutheran University School of Nursing showed that chronic fear can cause immune system and hormone system disruption, nervous system changes, sleep changes, eating disorders, headaches, chronic pain, and difficulty breathing.


Fear can also be extraordinarily debilitating from an emotional perspective. Dr. Mary Moller, director of Psychiatric Services at Northwest Center for Integrated Health, says that emotional impairments from fear can include learned helplessness, phobic anxiety, mood swings, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and an inability to experience feelings of love. In the social sciences, there’s a term called the mean and scary worldview. It’s a phenomenon that happens in the brain of someone who has a high viewing rate of TV (with high being defined as over two hours per day, btw). This viewing habit causes people to see the world as a more dangerous place than it really is, which means they become more fearful, more suspicious, and less trusting of others in general. When we hyperinflate the danger of something in our mind, we don’t respond logically. Jumping across the room to avoid a sword-bearing, under-the-bed-dwelling boogeyman is a case in point.

A study at the University of Minnesota found that fear can interrupt the neural process that helps us regulate emotions and read nonverbal cues. So instead of having a normal emotion or reading someone’s nonverbal response correctly, our brains respond through the lens fear, which means we are more likely to be impulsive and hyperreactive to situations. Fear also affects our digestion and other autonomic bodily responses. The body devotes all of its energy to fighting off that perceived threat – real or imagined.


And chronic fear, like that which drives media-induced panic even impact our memories. Our brain is dependent on certain chemical states to retrieve certain memories, and fear can impact both our recall of and our storage of memories. The chemical changes caused by these chemical changes can actually distort our memory and our perception of reality! Fear impacts our behavioral, autonomic, endocrine, cognitive, and even our interpersonal responses. As author Gary Chapman once said about these types of emotions, they’re designed to be visitors, but not permanent residents, in the human heart. In other words, powerful emotions like fear or anger have a place in alerting us to situations so we can respond in the moment, but we don’t want to allow them to unpack their suitcases and move into the spare bedroom.


So where does fear come from? Though fear can certainly come from and be exacerbated by traumatic experiences, the type of fear response I’ve been concerned about in American culture for several years now is one that Dr. Joel Johnson and I wrote about extensively in the book The Science of Social Influence: How the culture of media shapes our identity. There is a powerful, correlative attachment to mainstream media and the rate of panic and irrational responses we often find permeating American culture. From songs to sitcoms to movies to news media, there is a tremendously unbalanced focus on the negative. In fact, one of the driving forces behind story selection in mainstream news is sensationalism. If it bleeds, it leads. The most common stories in headline news aren’t the good news stories. They’re the fear-inducing, blood-pressure raising content that impacts our brain, body, and behavior. And the more we take these in, the more they subconsciously, surreptitiously affect our worldview.

Many researchers have covered the topic of media influence on our beliefs and behaviors; you can literally earn an entire college degree on this topic alone. But I’ll condense it here. Mainstream media sources tend toward negativity and sensationalism, and, because we are social creatures, we are deeply impacted by the company we keep, by what we read, by what we think about, meditate on. As Harvard professor Steven Pinker says, “the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition” to make us believe the worst instead of the best.


What we feed on grows. If 88% of the stories in your news feed focus on fear, and you ingest those views regularly without a balance of rationalism, that’s a breeding ground for the mean and scary worldview. And this worldview affects more than just us as individuals. Like a virus, these beliefs and behaviors can be transmitted from one individual to another. If we don’t begin to assess and address some of these problematic paradigms in our own minds, we will persist in passing them on to our children, our families, our friends, those within our realms of influence.


Fear can drive us to vy for control in relationships. Fearful people often try to control other’s opinions through gossip or to control relationships in order to moderate an irrational fear. It’s like a dysfunctional offshoot of care gone awry – care that becomes so irrational that is turns into manipulation. In the same way, fear can drive us to be hypervigilant, helicopter-ish, or just constantly worried and obsessesed. As Pinker says, instead of becoming more informed, heavy newswatchers can actually become miscalibrated. He says this relentless consumption of negativity makes us fatalistic, gloomy, desensitized, anxious, and hostile.

When a working model or paradigm goes unnoticed and unquestioned in our lives, it creates a pervasive worldview, a lens, of fear, what author Besser van der Kolk describes as a “misinterpretation of innocuous stimuli as potential threats.” This untempered paradigm creates a worldview of threats and defenses where defensiveness is not warranted. What a great reminder to discipline ourselves not to dwell on the negative, but to think, as Philippians 4 reminds us, on what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, praiseworthy, of good report. When is the last time you saw a checklist like that in mainstream media? Read up on Dr. Shawn Achor’s research or Dr. Robert Emmons research to learn more about how our daily thoughts affect our overall worldview.


In my research, I’ve seen the tremendous impact of media not only on fear-induced behavior but also on social conditioning in general. Music and movies commonly provide us with what researchers call “an unearned high,” that is, an emotional response that we are vicariously siphoning off of the show or song. This unearned high literally trains us to be addicted to certain emotions and certain responses – even though we didn’t “earn” them through our own life experience. This is one reason social scientists suspect that the stage of perpetual adolescence is exacerbated by excessive video game playing. Teens and young adults experience extreme emotions that activate their warrior modality, but it’s almost as if they drain these false emotions on virtual victories and then have nothing left over for the real world.

In the same way, this dependence on vicarious emotions has dramatically limited our ability to stay calm and to respond rather than react. In fact, we have actually become a nation of overreactors who literally thrive on conflict, who thrive on being stressed out. But if we remind ourselves what that fear-induced stress does to our brain and body, we would be hard pressed to agree that it’s beneficial in any way. Other than a temporary state that protects us in a moment of danger, fear should not be residing in our hearts, reigning in our homes, or ruling our country. As I’ve said before, fear is a terrible master.


So, whose responsibility is it to speak up, to step up, to show up in times of crisis?


As we’ve seen throughout the ages, especially the last 100 years of American history, the most effective organization in dealing with social crises is not the government or the media or the school system. It’s the church. Over and over throughout history, the church has stepped in where government feared to tread and brought dramatic positive social change at the request of former presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, Clinton, and Bush just to name a few. The American church stepped in in the 1930s to help decrease poverty and unemployment rates. It stepped in in the 60s to help combat poverty and urban decay. It stepped in in the 90s to help with the welfare crisis and again in the early 2000s to enhance community involvement. Times of national crises are opportunities for the church to rise up, not to shrink back. That's why I'm calling on churches across the US to step up and partner with parents as we take back education for the next generation. Visit the Start an Academy tab on our homepage to learn more

Hebrews 3:13 says that we are to encourage one another daily so that we won’t be hardened by sins deceitfulness. If our social media posts are way more fear-inducing than encouraging, we might want to consider the impact of content before we post. Our words can further the emotion dysregulation around us, or they can help bring peace.


Philippians 4:6 tells us not be “anxious about anything but in every situation, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, to present our requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a decision, an act of the will. We must decide not be anxious, because we know that anxiety does not serve our brain, body, or behavior well. It doesn’t change our circumstances. It only hurts; it never heals. If there was ever a time we needed to have peace set as a guard over our hearts and our minds, this is one of those times.