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The Wages of Fear

By Nancy Heneson | Posted 10/10/2001

We've read and heard a lot about how to respond to bioterrorism, but very little on the biological response to terror itself. If you consider yourself scientifically literate, you know that the phrase "fight or flight" refers to the body's reaction to an array of stressors--terror certainly qualifies as a stressor. But even if you know the immediate psychophysiological responses to fear (cotton mouth, heightened strength, soiled underwear, complete loss of interest in food and sex), you may not realize the longer-term effects on your immune and other systems--and on your reaction to brown-skinned people with certain kinds of coverings on their heads.

We are mammals, and like all other mammals, we have been built through natural selection to cope with short-term stress. To paraphrase Stanford University behavioral biologist Rob Sapolsky, a zebra strolling through the savanna may experience momentary fear when she sees lions on the hunt, but she won't have nightmares and flashbacks about it. The zebra will either escape or be eaten.

Unfortunately, life as a modern human more often entails prolonged stress--not the instant mobilization and quick resolution of fight-or-flight, but continual anxiety and worry. One reason that terrorism is highly effective is that it plays into this very human shortcoming. Unlike the zebra, long after the attack we continue to relive, anticipate, and elaborate our fears. When the panic on our savanna--the streets--subsides, we are unable to swiftly and cleanly return to homeostasis because we do not perceive the danger to be past. Instead, our sympathetic nervous systems remain on high alert, directing the release of hormones that suppress the immune system, interfere with fertility, and raise blood pressure and heart rate--all good things in an emergency, not so good over the longer term.

Return to the zebra for a moment. A zebra will not always react to a lion with the flight response. He or she uses visual and other sensory cues to determine whether the lion is doing something threatening. If the lion is simply lounging around, the average zebra will not become agitated. This is perhaps the key difference between stress reactions in humans and in other mammals. We too have learned to make quick identifications based on signals and cues, an ability that has had great survival value--basically, the people who couldn't make those identifications aren't around anymore because they tended to get killed before they left descendants.

The problem is that the scene has changed too quickly for our biology. We possess a trait that for most of our history served us well. But when the confluence of modern threat--in this case, terrorism--and ancient nervous system produce a prolonged state of agitation, one of the things we do is overgeneralize about the danger. It's as if every lion, just by being a big, tawny feline, is bent on killing every zebra. (Osama, by the way, reportedly means "big cat.") The shame we feel at our new fear of perfectly innocent people who look Arab is very human: We are creatures with a moral structure. (Please note: I am talking about feeling fearful, not about going out and beating up and murdering people, which is another story.) But the fear itself is equally human. We carry within ourselves, literally in our viscera, the evolutionary legacy of a hypervigilant nervous system; consequently, we overreact to a certain cast of face, a certain age, a way of dressing.

It's the same tendency, in reverse, that allows all who display the American flag to feel bonded; that provokes us to tell and retell stories of heroism until the heroic acts themselves become symbols--a fireman's hat, a downed plane in a Pennsylvania field. This use of signs and meanings is not only more positive socially, but healthier physically. Instead of keeping us in a state of constant anxious arousal, it enables us to regain the calm needed to just live life.

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