Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Fear

Fear is a universal human experience. Everyone feels fear. Common fears include: fear of ghosts or evil spirits, cockroaches, spiders, snakes, and other creepy-crawlies, heights, water and bridges, enclosed spaces and tunnels, needles and blood, flying or driving, failure, social rejection, and public speaking.

Bill Tancer analyzed the most frequent online search queries that involved the phrase, "fear of...". This follows the assumption that people tend to seek information on the issues that concern them the most. His top ten list of fears? Flying, heights, clowns, intimacy, death, rejection, people, snakes, failure, and driving. 

In a 2005 Gallup poll, a national sample of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 were asked what they feared the most. The question was open ended and participants were able to say whatever they wanted. The top ten fears were, in order: terrorist attacks, spiders, death, being a failure, war, heights, criminal or gang violence, being alone, the future, and nuclear war. Proving that we've come a long way since "the bogeyman" and "monsters under the bed".

And then there are the learned fears. Kids who grow up in rural areas learn to fear the city, where they fear being mugged, kidnapped, shot, car-jacked, brutally murdered, or pushed in front of a moving subway train. They are intimidated by large crowds, and have trouble sleeping surrounded by so many unsavory characters. Kids who grow up the city, however, never experience complete darkness, or complete silence, until they're in the country for the first time. They are terrified by the knowledge that if Leatherface is lurking with his chainsaw, there would be no one to run to for help or protection. Are you comforted by the fact that there is safety in numbers? Are you less likely to be a lunatic's victim if there are other people nearby?

And there are more personal fears. For example, I've been somewhat afraid of dogs ever since I was bitten in the face by one when I was seven. It's not quite a phobia, and in fact, my family got a dog a few years later. Still, depending on the size of the animal and its disposition, I tense when I pass by a dog. I will cross the street to avoid a German Shepard. Being afraid of dogs is understandable, given my experience, but I also suffer from blood-injury-injection phobia because of the surgery I underwent to repair my face. I was awake for the 74 stitches, staring into a bright light and being told not to move a muscle. I am far more afraid of doctors than I am of dogs. I put off going to the doctor unless I am in unbearable pain for at least 24 hours. I have been known to shake, pace, and cry in examination rooms, I can't look at a needle without passing out, and I am a phlebotomist's worst nightmare. The logical part of my brain knows that a tiny stick is not going to be the end of the world, but that inner child of mine is fierce and feral, and she cannot be reasoned with.

We need fear. Fear can protect us. Fear can keep us safe. Fear can bring people together and create communities. We band together to face our fears as a collective, instead of on our own. And fear is exciting. Fear gives us the adrenaline we need to flee or fight - and as anyone who loves roller coasters knows, fear can feel good. There's a reason that we watch horror movies, and it's probably similar to the reason that people have told ghost stories around campfires and passed on urban legends for generations. There's something fun about fear.

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