FEAR IS the paralyzing emotion. In 1943, it killed two hundred people in a London bomb shelter in a matter of minutes, none of them even bruised — the lights had gone out when a bomb struck nearby and they simply stopped breathing. Fear also causes the spectacular voodoo deaths and, less sensationally, the dying by degrees of civilized people who constantly are afraid of ill health or misfortune.
While normal fear is the preservative that compels a man to save his skin if he can. any abnormal fear destroys a part of him, wearing out his stomach, heart and digestion. It can conquer nations. Fear keeps huge populations docile to small occupation forces, as the last war demonstrated; it contributes to the passivity with which the entire world awaits its nuclear fate.
Tracing some adult fears fs
psychiatry’s favorue parlor game. Fear of aging, for instance, is related to the fear of impotence; fear of death is most acute in people who fear life and live it tremulously; fear of the dark is derived from fear of being isolated, since the dark is when children customarily are separated from their parents; fear of burglars is a groove in memory made by a magnified childish fear.
Fear of guns: desire to kill
Many other fears are really fears of revealing one's true nature; fear of guns, experienced by some so violently that soldiers have suicided rather than handle live ammunition. is believed to be fear of giving in to a secret desire to kill and kill.
More than forty years ago, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins Uni-
versity, Dr. John B. Watson, performed a number of fear-inducing experiments on an unfortunate nine-month-old baby named Albert. The little boy began by being unconcerned, and even intrigued, with a fluffy white rat. Watson, who might have made an interesting study in abnormal psychology himself, held a steel bar behind Albert and struck it clangorously with a hammer whenever the baby reached toward the rat. Within a week, Albert was terrified when the rat appeared and crawled away screaming. Eventually he was afraid of everything furry, dogs, cats, a fur coat, a ball of wool.
Many psychiatrists believe that a!1 human fears are conditioned, as Albert’s was. Some fear-implanting is necessary for survival — respectful fear of traffic, for instance, of fire, stormy water, precipices. But
babies inadvertently pick up doze more from mothers who cringe thunderstorms, or panic wh guests are expected or are alarm by minor mishaps and fevers, lifelong fear can be branded in the young brain in a second; Ern« Jones, one of the world’s most t nowned psychoanalysts, once tre; ed a man almost incapacitated his fear of heights: at the age three, his crying annoyed a board who held him over a cask of wal and threatened to drop him if ’ wasn’t quiet.
Super patriots are cowan
Some people are more ft prone than others. Panic-spreade; they are a menace to the life a: sanity of a community. Armies t to keep them out of battle are; England put thousands of fear-ci riers in work battalions. They c; be distinguished by an instability of personality, which generally is demonstrated by profound bigotry; prejudice is fear inspired. Super patriots and the unpatriotic, both ol whom basically fear their fellow man, are also dangerously fc;rful.
bear has been defined as the p einonition of pain. Extreme fear brings on a condition that closely resembles death — a technique of hiding from the imminent unpleasantness. Its silence is eerie. A doctor who arrived on the scene of a train wreck only ten minutes after it occurred heard nothing but the murmurings of pastoral animals, though a hundred people were strewn about. Mutism is a common symptom of soldiers consumed by fright and the two hundred who died of terror in the London shelter made no sound. Doctors have
two theories about the way in which fear causes death in such cases: either the victim's blood pressure drops so disastrously that his heart fails or else his breathing is so constricted by the rigidity of his muscles that he smothers.
In the yogi-like state of cataleptic fear the heart scarcely beats, there is little breathing and no hunger. Thirst, however, becomes acute. A man who believed he was about to be shot by bandits later reported, “My tongue began to swell, and my mouth to get dry. This thirst rapidly became worse until my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth and I could scarcely get my breath.”
Clowns mock fear's symptoms
Along with thirst are assorted disorders, all of which have been mocked by clowns: the face re-
laxes, the eyebrows raise, the eyes widen (according to Charles Darwin, to enable a man to see his adversary better); blood rushes away from the skin, leaving it pale and covered with clammy sweat because the glands are out of kilter; there is a tendency to yawn; vascular convulsions cause shivering. chattering teeth, gooseflesh and the sensation of hair standing on end. A Sutherland Highlanders' sergeant at Lucknow, who discovered by the light of a flaming torch that he was standing ankle-deep in loose gunpowder, declared that his hair raised the bonnet from his head.
Stark immobilizing fear can cause fainting, permanent paralysis, seizures, mental disturbances, premature aging and death. It occurs when the terrified brain can devise no better defense than to cower.
But in circumstances where the fear opens up two avenues of action — flight or fight — nature exuberantly supplies an arsenal. An athlete recounts how, as an elevenyear-old boy being pursued by a bull, he cleared a fence and ditch that he wasn't able to jump again until he was a man.
Fear aids self-preservation
The body gears up in a state of fear as though it were facing tigers. There is a swift flood of adrenin and sugar, so that the heart beats briskly and the muscles will feel no fatigue. Blood shifts away from the stomach and intestines to the heart, brain and limbs, the parts that will be needed most; deeper, quicker breathing provides extra oxygen; there is sharp concentration in the brain (which is why fear is rarely forgotten); the blood undergoes a subtle chemical change that will make it coagulate more readily in case of a wound, sphincter muscles relax, emptying bowel and bladder to make the body light, and the processes in the alimentary canal cease.
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Told the house is burning, some people straighten a lampshade
A state of chronic fear, such as is endured by men afraid of losing their jobs or women afraid of sex, inevitably means the maintaining of most of these changes, in the form of diarrhea, inability to control urine, poor digestion or heart complaints, until the abused parts deteriorate. A. M. Meerloo, a phychiatrist who reports on fear in a book. Patterns of Panic, observes: “In periods of latent panic, people go more frequently to the cardiologist than to the psychologist.”
Fear is very close to anger. Physiologically they are almost identical and anger accordingly often operates as an outlet for fear. It was observed during the last war that displaced children in camps throughout England rarely showed any fright during bombings but were constantly irritable and displayed tantrums over trivia. Similarly, a cornered animal or man is first frightened and then may be furious.
One of the oddest side effects of fear is that it increases sexual desire. Psychiatrists believe that danger causes men and women to seek physical union as a mutual reassurance and a testament of strength.
Fear has some whiplash reactions that can mutilate the human mind. Some of the calmest survivors of the savage bombings of Rotterdam, for instance, labored for weeks afterward to re-establish their homes and set up relief committees. Their work done, they collapsed suddenly and had to be treated in mental hospitals. After such disasters as Boston's Cocoanut Grove fire of twenty years ago or Springh ill’s mine cave-ins, psychologists have observed that some of the most stoic survivors paid for their control later by becoming ill and hysterical.
After earthquakes and floods many previously normal people suicide or become permanently insane. During the vicious bombings of Cologne in 1942 many Germans deliberately drowned themselves in the river.
Following a panic, the over-readied body remains tense for many days, the skin is pale and temper testy. In children there is a marked regression after a fright to baby ways, such as bed - wetting and thumb - sucking. Adults regress almost as transparently; they prattle, crave sweets, want to be pampered and sleep curled in the fetal position.
During the period of fear, human behavior is sometimes decidedly odd. There may be a withdrawal from reality as effective as a faint. Told the house is burning down, some will straighten a lampshade. The apathy produced by fear was particularly noticeable in occupied Europe during the last war. Underground workers who were warned that the Gestapo was coming became so terrified that they were unable to plan an escape but waited passively for arrest. Jewish women being collected for trips to concentration camps would ask permission to finish the dusting. Others become excessively sleepy when they are afraid.
Horror can be commercial
By one method or another, it is possible to get so adjusted to a familiar fear that its removal is frightening. Citizens of Dover, under bombardment from guns across the Channel for four years, suffered “nerve-flop” when the shells ceased. They crowded doctors’ offices complaining of exhaustion, insomnia and a sense of impending doom.
Fear so welcomes a place to put itself that it is the foundation of many commercial successes. Midway rides and horror movies cater to the human need for fear targets and there are enthusiasts for such fear sports as skiing, racing and mountain climbing and such fear activities as gambling, stealing and cuckoldry. Children are titillated by mild fear, squealing deliciously at iack-in-the-box. hide-andseek and ghost stories. Many performers and after-dinner speakers seek audiences although well aware that they will suffer nauseous stage fright. Fear seduces, as people who have stood by the glossy green brink of Niagara Falls can testify.
Human beings are fearless only when newborn. Fear of separation may be the first fear, when the infant collects his wits, but the baby shows fear of sudden noises and loss of support by the time he is six months old. In the first two years, toddlers develop other fears: noises and objects associated with noise, strangers, new situations. They are not afraid of darkness, slimy or furry animals or horror masks.
Researchers asked fifty-one children of various ages and ninety adults to handle a selection of snakes. Only the two-year-olds treated them as interesting toys, the three-year-olds were cautious, the four-year-olds definitely distant. Most upset by the experiment were the ninety adults.
Concrete fears begin to disappear as the child grows. Whichever ones are left over into adolescence may be there for life. Major fears of young children concern imaginary dangers, storms, the supernatural, war, destruction and death. Fear of inadequacy begins about the age of nine. Adolescents are mostly afraid of ridicule and of being unpopular, though adolescent girls may demonstrate showy panic over snakes or horses. Adults have extensions of the social fears, along with fears about sex, authority, failure and success.
The years before the age of four are the most fertile ones for fearplanting; after that the child isn’t naïve enough to be so receptive. Among the most fear-instilling experiences of early childhood are being confined, particularly in darkness, being deserted in a strange place and witnessing coitus. The latter is associated in the young child's mind with a murderous struggle; it can leave in its wake fear of the dark, distaste for physical contact and an adult revulsion toward sex relations.
Men suppress their fears more than women, but have as many. While a woman will refuse flatly to stand on the edge of a parapet, a man does so with a casual air. He feels infinitely better, however, when he steps back.
Many people devise their own fears, to suit themselves. Their floating sensation of fear homes on current fads — lung cancer, insanity and radiation are presently in vogue, supplanting the preference of simpler ages for fear of the elements or heavenly portents. It is vastly more endurable to have a name for a state of fear than to try to cope with the horror of abstract dread. The fear is even reduced when a label can be found, providing family and friends don’t consider the choice too eccentric to tolerate.
A man who was depressed on the morning he was making a long plane trip invented a fear of airplane travel to explain his mood, and subsequently enlarged his fear until he was physically ill before every flight. A housewife with only a modest level of fear to dispose of imagined a fear of heights. The idea came to her while carrying her infant son down some stairs.
It's fool’s work to try to cure someone of the comforts of a fear. If logic prevails and the fear is detached from its object, the hapless person must find a new and less vulnerable fear. One young man, for instance, fastened his fear on the conviction that he would die of a ruptured appendix. He pleaded with a surgeon to remove the healthy appendix, anil simultaneously the fear, but the doctor refused. “If 1 take out your appendix,” he explained, “you’ll only switch to being afraid of something else, like cancer. A ruptured appendix fear is much easier to deal with, believe me.” The man was impressed. Ever since, he has been afraid of cancer. Nobody can cure cancer-fear.
Studies of fearful people have shown that most of them received little assurance as children that the world was safe. Harshly punished and coldly tended, they grew up anticipating rejection and trouble. When they were small, they lived in a state of alarm and subsequent beneficial ex-
perienccs have little effect on this aroused state. Good luck, in fact, is regarded with suspicion. Children of warm and affectionate parents, on the other hand, have only routine fears and easily outgrow them. They can trust the future because they arc strangers to betrayal.
Fear has two extremes, the blush of shyness which is intended as a kind of concealment and the stampede of panic which is instant madness.
Shyness occurs, most frequently in young people and women, when the situation seems more than the ego is prepared to handle. These moments of flustered helplessness diminish with experience and confidence.
Fear: a torch in the powder room
Everyone is susceptible to panic. “Panic is a contagious flight reflex,” writes Dr. Meerloo. “A panicky person causes more fear than the danger itself.”
Panic is total loss of control. Women have trampled their own children and men have bolted from sinking ships leaving their families behind. The only effective means of dealing with panic is to prevent it. but no one knows himself well enough to predict whether he will leap to his feet in a burning building to stem the hysteria with a superb command or whether he will lead the rush for the doors.
A psychologist W'ho has spent years studying human reactions in crisis periods was aboard a DC-K that crashed at Idlewild Airport in I960 during a blizzard. Trained as he was. he
remembers little of what happened. Someone else opened an escape door, called out calmly. “This way please,” and led the ninety-eight passengers to safety. The psychologist later observed, “In most cases of crowd panic in a confined area, fear of not being able to escape is the cause of virtually all terror.”
Some believe that all fear is fundamentally not knowing what to do. People have little fear within the area of their capabilities. Yale University made two interesting studies to illustrate the value of preparation to reduce fear. The first concerned a group of high-school students, half of whom were instructed on the progress Russia was making toward building its own A-bomb. Three months later. President Harry Truman announced that the Soviet had just tested an A-bomb. The students who had been alerted to this possibility were noticeably less concerned than those who were surprised.
The other study involved men undergoing surgery. Two groups were discovered to be highly agitated. One was comprised of men whose terror was obvious and the other of men who were arrogantly brave. Neither group wanted details of the operations and both were highly disturbed and angry during the post-operative period. A third group, men who were apprehensive and demanded full explanations of procedures and what miseries they might expect, was relaxed both before and after the operations.
The multiple fears of children have
been ascribed to their lack of physical skills and their smallness, which makes them feel vulnerable. Fearful adults similarly feel too frail to fend off a threatening world.
The prevalence of fear today is the torch in the powder room. Many are in a mood to start a nuclear war at once, mainly to dispose of their scare that war may begin unexpectedly. Decency and compassion can't live with fear; people who are frightened would see the world destroyed, so long as they arc spared. Judgment becomes incoherent. A madman who promises safety can impress a country driven to selfishness by fear.
Prejudice mounts with fear, since they are mates. Citizens want to close their ranks against strangers: people who talk of democratic ideals — anil mean it — are considered dangerous. Those whose basic fears are sexual turn on Negroes and those with economic fears turn on the Jewish. The cry is for more restrictions, more red tape, more police. It is all the sound of fear.
Philosophers from Statius to Santayana have commented that it is fear which first fashioned gods upon the earth. Milton believed that hope cannot exist with fear, and psychiatrists have noted that many of man’s noblest achievements are products of the fear of being insignificant.
Fear is the most useful of emotions, a practical tool for the preservation of man. But when it broods and grows that fear becomes an instrument of demolition, the one in this world most to be feared. ★