Fear Factory: How Media-Induced Worry Impacts Your Brain, Belief, and Behavior

Dr. Lisa Dunne

March 13, 2020

What can we do as leaders and communicators to help those in our realm of influence respond proactively but rationally to the current media cacophony surrounding the coronavirus pandemic? In this blog, Dr. Lisa Dunne discusses the causes of fear, the physiological and emotional impact of fear, and how we can best respond to fear’s current vice grip on our culture. Instead of serving as fear factories, we can encourage those within our realm of influence by modeling effective communication skills that bear a positive impact on our brains, our beliefs, and our behavior in the midst of a national state of emergency.

When I was little, I had an irrational fear that someone was hiding under my bed with a long sword. When it was time to go to sleep, I would practice my track and field long-jump skills by leaping onto the bed from two feet away so that the imaginary intruder couldn’t grab me by the ankles. Once I made it safely to the surface, I would cover my head with a blanket (because apparently, the blanket made me impervious to sword-induced injury). But one night as I lay there trying to fall asleep, I suddenly had the realization that for a sword to pierce through both my mattress and my box springs and still do damage to my body, it would have to be so long that it wouldn’t actually be able to fit under the bed. It was an aha moment in my prepubescent brain! Armed with that tiny grain of logical evidence, I was able to talk myself out of that irrational fear and start climbing up onto the bed like a normal human being.

Though it’s a simplistic example, sometimes we do need to talk ourselves (and those within our realm of influence) into a little logical analysis and out of the paralyzing and often unreasonable side effects of fear. 

If you’ve ever dealt with fear, you know that it causes a variety of human responses, many of them irrational. Since fear is currently sweeping across the globe in pandemic fashion right now, I wanted to take a moment to look at the causes of fear, the impact of fear, and our response to fear. That way, we can properly address it, apply a little logic, and break ourselves free from its paralyzing grip. So, let’s talk a little bit about fear, what it does to your brain and body, and how to manage it.

From a physiological perspective, fear has a number of deleterious effects on the body and brain. Fear hijacks our emotional response system, which is what causes people to become irrational. It damages the hippocampus (part of the limbic system that impacts short-term, long-term, and spatial memory), it impairs long-term memory formation, and it impacts our ability to regulate emotion in general. A study by the Pacific Lutheran University School of Nursing showed that chronic fear can cause immune system and hormone system disruption, nervous system changes, sleep changes, eating disorders, headaches, chronic pain, and difficulty breathing.

Fear can also be extraordinarily debilitating from an emotional perspective. Dr. Mary Moller, director of Psychiatric Services at Northwest Center for Integrated Health, says that emotional impairments from fear can include learned helplessness, phobic anxiety, mood swings, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and an inability to experience feelings of love. In the social sciences, there’s a term called the mean and scary worldview. It’s a phenomenon that happens in the brain of someone who has a high viewing rate of TV (with high being defined as over two hours per day, btw). This viewing habit causes people to see the world as a more dangerous place than it really is, which means people become more fearful, more suspicious, and less trusting of others in general. When we hyperinflate the danger of something in our mind, we don’t respond logically. Jumping across the room to avoid a sword-bearing, under-the-bed-dwelling boogeyman is a case in point.

A study at the University of Minnesota found that fear can interrupt the neural process that helps us regulate emotions and read nonverbal cues. So instead of having a normal emotion or reading someone’s nonverbal response correctly, our brains respond through the lens fear, which means we are more likely to be impulsive and hyperreactive to situations. Fear also affects our digestion and other autonomic bodily responses. The body devotes all of its energy to fighting off that perceived threat – real or imagined.

And chronic fear, like that which often drives media-induced panic, even impacts our memories. Our brain is dependent on certain chemical states to retrieve certain memories, and fear can impact both our recall of and our storage of memories. The chemical changes caused by these chemical changes can actually distort our memory and our perception of reality! Fear impacts our behavioral, autonomic, endocrine, cognitive, and even our interpersonal responses. As author Gary Chapman once said about these types of emotions, they’re designed to be visitors, but not permanent residents, in the human heart. In other words, powerful emotions like fear or anger have a place in alerting us to situations so we can respond in the moment, but we don’t want to allow them to unpack their suitcases and move into the spare bedroom.  

So where does fear come from? Though fear can certainly come from and be exacerbated by traumatic experiences, the type of fear response I’ve been concerned about in American culture for several years now is one that Dr. Joel Johnson and I wrote about extensively in the book The Science of Social Influence: How the culture of media shapes our identity. There is a powerful, correlative attachment to mainstream media and the rate of panic and irrational responses we often find permeating American culture. From songs to sitcoms to movies to news media, there is a tremendously unbalanced focus on the negative. In fact, one of the driving forces behind story selection in mainstream news is sensationalism. If it bleeds, it leads. The most common stories in headline news aren’t the good news stories. They’re the fear-inducing, blood-pressure raising content that impacts our brain, body, and behavior. And the more we take these in, the more they subconsciously, surreptitiously affect our worldview.  

Many researchers have covered the topic of media influence on our beliefs and behaviors; you can literally earn an entire college degree on this topic alone. But I’ll condense it here. Mainstream media sources tend toward negativity and sensationalism, and, because we are social creatures, we are deeply impacted by the company we keep, by what we read, by what we think about, what we meditate on. As Harvard professor Steven Pinker says, “the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition” to make us believe the worst instead of the best.

What we feed on grows. If 88% of the stories in your news feed focus on fear, and you ingest those views regularly without a balance of rationalism, that’s a breeding ground for the mean and scary worldview. And this worldview affects more than just us as individuals. Like a virus, these beliefs and behaviors can be transmitted from one individual to another. If we don’t begin to assess and address some of these problematic paradigms in our own minds, we will persist in passing them on to our children, our families, our friends, those within our realms of influence.

Fear can also drive us to vy for control in relationships. Fearful people often try to control other’s opinions through gossip or to control relationships in order to moderate an irrational fear. It’s like a dysfunctional offshoot of care gone awry – care that becomes so irrational that is turns into manipulation. In the same way, fear can drive us to be hypervigilant, helicopter-ish, or just constantly worried and obsessed. As Pinker says, instead of becoming more informed, heavy newswatchers can actually become miscalibrated. He says this relentless consumption of negativity makes us fatalistic, gloomy, desensitized, anxious, and hostile.  

When a working model or paradigm goes unnoticed and unquestioned in our lives, it creates a pervasive worldview, in this case, a lens of fear — what author researcher Besser van der Kolk describes as a “misinterpretation of innocuous stimuli as potential threats.” This untempered paradigm creates a worldview of threats and defenses where defensiveness is not warranted. What a great reminder to discipline ourselves not to dwell on the negative, but to think, as Philippians 4 reminds us, on what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, praiseworthy, of good report. When is the last time you saw a checklist like that in mainstream media? Read up on Dr. Shawn Achor’s research or Dr. Robert Emmons research to learn more about how our daily thoughts affect our overall worldview.

In my research, I’ve seen the tremendous impact of media not only on fear-induced behavior but also on social conditioning in general. Music and movies commonly provide us with what researchers call “an unearned high,” that is, an emotional response that we are vicariously siphoning off of the show or song. This unearned high literally trains us to be addicted to certain emotions and certain responses – even though we didn’t “earn” them through our own life experience. This is one reason social scientists suspect that the stage of perpetual adolescence is exacerbated by excessive video game playing. Teens and young adults experience extreme emotions that activate their warrior modality, but it’s almost as if they drain these false emotions on virtual victories and then have nothing left over for the real world.

In the same way, this dependence on vicarious emotions has dramatically limited our ability to stay calm and to respond rather than react. In fact, we have actually become a nation of overreactors who literally thrive on conflict, who thrive on being stressed out. But if we remind ourselves of the damage that fear-induced stress does to our brain and body, we would be hard pressed to agree that it’s beneficial in any way. Other than a temporary state that protects us in a moment of danger, fear should not be residing in our hearts, reigning in our homes, or ruling our country. As I’ve said before, fear is a terrible master.

So, whose responsibility is it to speak up, to step up, to show up in times of crisis?

As we’ve seen throughout the ages, especially the last 100 years of American history, the most effective organization in dealing with social crises is not the government or the media or the school system. It’s the church. Over and over throughout history, the church has stepped in where government feared to tread and brought dramatic positive social change at the request of former presidents Roosevelt, Johnson, Clinton, and Bush just to name a few. The American church stepped in in the 1930s to help decrease poverty and unemployment rates. It stepped in in the 60s to help combat poverty and urban decay. It stepped in in the 90s to help with the welfare crisis and again in the early 2000s to enhance community involvement. Times of national crises are opportunities for the church to rise up, not to shrink back.

Yes, practice good hygiene. Yes, use wisdom. Yes, be proactive. But don’t allow yourself to be mastered by fear. And limit intake of mainstream media influence on the current coronavirus crisis to trustworthy sources like the Center for Disease Control. Consider the source.

Hebrews 3:13 says that we are to encourage one another daily so that we won’t be hardened by sins deceitfulness. If your social media posts are way more fear-inducing than encouraging, you might want to consider the impact of content before you post. Our words can further aggravate the emotion dysregulation around us, or they can help foster peace.

Philippians 4:6 tells us not be “anxious about anything, but in every situation, with prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, to present our requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is a decision, an act of the will. We must decide not be anxious, because we know that anxiety does not serve our brain, body, or behavior well. It doesn’t change our circumstances. It only hurts; it never heals. If there was ever a time we needed to have peace set as a guard over our hearts and our minds, this is one of those times.

Isaiah 28:3 says that God keeps “in perfect peace” the one whose mind is stayed on him because he trusts in God. We have to determine that we will place our eyes, our minds, and our trust on the one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.

Irrational fear literally strips us of a sound mind and causes us to act – well, irrationally. For example, stores across the country selling out of toilet paper in response to the coronavirus is an irrational response. People do this, by the way, because the feeling of hoarding offers some level of psychological control. It gives people a sense of power over the circumstance instead of feeling overwhelmed by helplessness. Deriving a relative sense of confidence from hoarding rolls of toilet paper may not be the most damaging course of action a person could choose, but behaviors like this do tend to induce more panic in the general public. In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul reminds us that God did not give us “a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind.” So, let’s put those sound minds in action, shall we?

“Fear not,” Isaiah 41:10 says, “for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” An important distinguishing marker between fear and hope is that fear leaves you feeling helpless, and hope leaves you feeling empowered.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him,” Romans 15:13 says, “so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” A national crisis is a great time to check our personal fruit. Are you overflowing with joy, peace, trust, and hope? If not, consider what type of messages you are allowing to crowd your neural space.   

I would say that one potential benefit of the whole coronavirus conversation has been that it brought to light an important phrase called social distancing. In public health, social distancing means keeping yourself at least 6 feet away from other people to avoid the spread of germs, most specifically, respiratory droplets. However, it’s also an important technique emotionally and spiritually. You may need to apply a little social distancing from mainstream media, whose goal is sensationalism at the price of public panic. Or, you may want to use social distancing from other negative influences: peers who are constantly spewing out the COVID-19-equivalent of a man hiding under the bed with a 6-foot sword. It might be time to practice a little emotional social distancing from the information sources that are causing panic and determine instead to fill up your tank on the word of God.

Because if there’s one thing we know about fear: It’s contagious.

But so is faith.

Let’s communicate hope to those in our realm of influence by modeling appropriate emotion regulation and serving as beacons of light in a dark season of history. Let’s be people of faith, not fear.

If we place our eyes on the storm instead of the one who calms the storm, we will find ourselves drowning in the crashing cultural waves of fear and terror. But if we place our eyes on the author of our faith, living proactive but not panicked lives, we will find rest, even as Jesus did, right here in the midst of the storm.