Right after 9/11, the public psyche was wounded. People felt vulnerable. They personalized the risk and wondered what was going to happen next. Many couldn’t sleep and fell into a cycle of worry. I treated patients in my office for this specific fear—for excess nervousness and a rapid heart rate, for rising blood pressure and sweating.
A series of public health scares ensued, including anthrax, West Nile Virus, Mad Cow Disease and Bird flu. Each time the public assumed they were going to be next. I became the voice of reason in print and on TV and radio and wrote about it in my book, False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear. By interviewing fear researchers, I determined that fear and worry have very powerful affects in the human brain, which can only be overcome by correspondingly strong positive emotions such as courage, love and laughter.
There is an almond-shaped organ deep in the brain known as the amygdala. The hard wiring of the brain runs through it and connects with a structure at the front of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex. Inherited from our animal forbears, this hardwiring regulates strong emotion, including fear, courage and love. The amygdala initiates our response to perceived threats, and research suggests that courage suppresses it. When we are afraid, we experience a surge of stress hormones (“fight or flight”) that drives up our blood pressure and heart rate, dilates our pupils, makes us sweat, tenses our muscles, and puts us at risk of a heart attack or stroke. Further, chronic exposure to perceived danger leaves this brain circuit in the “on” position, which is bad for our collective health as well as our judgment.
Luckily, courage appears to suppress the amygdala, and so, fear and courage cannot exist at the same time. Fear guides, as I call them in my book, are courageous leaders or personal role models who help us overcome worry.
As North Korea and the United States exchanged theats, I wondered what effect this bluster would have on the psyche of the average U.S. citizen. Do we panic and over-personalize the risk? If we stockpile supplies such as potassium iodide pills, for example, to protect our thyroid glands in the event of a sudden burst of radiation, aren’t we in fact signaling to our bodies and minds that such an attack is in the offing?
During the Cold War, we internalized an omnipresent threat. After years of hiding under our school desks during air raid drills, we as a society became less secure mentally, emotionally and physically. Nuclear fears—along with the cognitive, emotional and behavioral manifestations of them—became permanently embedded in the American psyche.
If our country’s leader stands up to the threat, as President Roosevelt did (“Th only thing we have to fear is fear itself”), and Kennedy (“It is an unfortunate fact that we can secure peace only by preparing for war”), Reagan (“Tear down this wall”), Bush 43 (“The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon”), and now Trump (“fire and fury like the world has never seen,” “locked and loaded”), we can relate to this model of strength rather than to the fear and worry that danger understandably generate.
Last week, Guam released a set of guidelines instructing citizens how to respond in the case of a nuclear attack.
These would, of course, prove useful if an attack took place. But, for now, such guidelines may increase fears by providing a concrete reminder of the threat and making it seem imminent.
We could instead focus on the fact that hundreds of thousands of retired military are not fleeing Guam. Emphasizing context and providing perspective are useful tools and may act as a kind of yoga for the emotional brain.
The same calm resolve must instruct the Trump administration while it faces a petulant dictator.
Kim Jung-un has repeatedly watched allied threats prove to be merely posturing. He has learned that he can simply puff out his nuclear chest to get what he wants. Every psychologist knows that rewarding temper tantrums results only increases their frequency and intensity.
The “bully on a playground” mentality dictates that he will never back down. Kim is the classic bully. He threatens and kills people for attention and control, and he promotes his interests through fear and intimidation.
History demonstrates that strong, courageous leadership combined with demonstrable spine to back words with actions provides the best chance for establishing peace.
So far, this strategy appears to be working. As of Wednesday, Kim delayed a decision to attack Guam. President Trump tweeted, “Kim Jung Un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision.”
The psychology of courage trumps the psychology of fear every time. The American citizenry can rely on it.
Dr. Marc Siegel is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is a medical correspondent for Fox News. His bestselling book, “False Alarm, The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear,” examines healthy and unhealthy reactions to perceived threats.
Dr. Gina Loudon is a bestselling author and TV analyst on the psychology of politics. She guest hosts Sean Hannity’s radio show and anchors a nightly TV News program called America Trends with Dr. Gina on YouToo America Network.