It’s the season for spooking, but traditional Halloween haunts don’t keep most Americans up at night.
Screaming your way through a haunted house, burying your face during a horror movie, or jumping at the sight of a hairy spider are all fear responses. But reactions to such acute threats are fleeting, and around this time of year are often intentional.
Which is very different than the fears that plague us year-round.
A recent survey from Chapman University in California found the top fears held by most people are the unpredictable ones over which they have absolutely no control. People are most worried about government corruption and terrorism and corporate tracking of personal data. (Of the 88 fears that survey participants were asked to rank, whooping cough and zombies rank as the bottom two.)
Robert Leahy, director of The American Institute for Cognitive Therapy and author of The Worry Cure, said people often “overestimate the risk” of threats they cannot see. And the lack of control makes them feel vulnerable.
“Ironically, we seldom fear the real threats—such as cancer and cardiovascular disease — [and] we engage in high-risk behavior such as overeating, drinking, smoking, etc.,” he said. “…We often believe that what is familiar to us—these habits—is not risky.”
Fear can impact behavior. The Chapman researchers found that nearly one-quarter of Americans said they’ve voted for a political candidate solely out of fear. Fears also often ebb and flow with the news cycle. Remember the crippling anxiety around the Ebola crisis last year, even though the chance of catching the disease was infinitesimal?
So, it’s no wonder government corruption is a top concern this year. It’s a presidential election year, and the slogan for the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is “Make America Great Again,” implying it is currently not. And the leading Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been embroiled in questions about her trustworthiness.
Then there’s the rise of ISIS and related instability in the Middle East. The pervasive message is that the world is an unsafe place. Recent technology breaches have made us believe that even our own personal information isn’t protected.
It’s all anxiety-inducing.
“It’s time for us to come back and say the fear is pathological and is hurting our society rather than helping it,” said L. Ed Day, one of the researchers on the Chapman survey.
He suggested we need a fear reality check.
Margee Kerr, whose book “Scream” was released in September, has made a career out of studying fear responses. She analyzes ways to make haunted houses and thrill rides scarier by messing with people’s ability to predict outcomes. She likened it to when you’re walking up stairs and think there’s one more left, stumble and feel startled.
But, when you’re talking about those big chronic fears that make you feel constantly on high alert, it’s emotionally taxing, she said.
Leahy outlined a few cognitive exercises to minimize those fears. He suggested asking yourself these questions:
“What specifically am I predicting will happen?”
“How often has this happened to someone I know?”
“Is it productive for me to worry about this?”
“Is there anything that I can plausibly do today that will make a difference?
Can I accept uncertainty?”
“We often mistake uncertainty for a bad outcome,” he said. “We might say, ‘I don’t know, I might be the one.’ Yes, that would be unfortunate, but the real question is how likely is it?”
It might seem counter-intuitive, but another way to at least temporarily allay those fears is to partake in some of the classic Halloween frights, Kerr said.
“We’ve found that people who report high anxiety get more out of scary things. When you scare someone who is very anxious, it takes their pre-thinking brain offline for a second,” she said. “It makes them be present …that makes them feel good instead of worrying. They are very much in control.”
So, after you watch the next presidential debate maybe follow it up with The Exorcist.
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