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October 27, 2014 at 12:02 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

America: Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, Place of the Fearful

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Tragedy: An armed terrorist in Canada's government campus. One military guard was dead and the assailant was also dead in a dark chapter of Canadian history last week.

I've always believed that, as intense heat forges metal, so does crisis forge and reveal our true quality.  It was telling to see how the media within Canada and America responded to the situation with stark contrast. 

Canada broadcast tribute to the fallen soldier and memorialized him with honor. Honor and praise were also given to the parliament sergeant at arms who overcame the assailant.  A sense of calm prevailed and citizens were reassured that everything was being controlled to the best of their capabilities. The terrorist was mentioned but in general, Canada denied him his 15 minutes of fame.

Things were different in America. Insider footage of panic and gunshot blasts were played over and over.  The gunman was the focus of the story with analysis as to the motive and speculation as to whether this would spill over into our borders.  Fear was the theme broadcast with a contagious flare.

This incident is not isolated.  Rather, it is the norm.  Today, like most times, society is bombarded with fear.  It's epidemic in magnitude and spread with contagion greater than Ebola.  How have we become this way?  Is there a cure?  What are the consequences to our health and well-being?

Photo Credit: CBC News

Photo Credit: Fox 35 News

Historical Perspective 

Propaganda and media-based stirring of the American public is as old as the idea of an American society. The press has been putting out such notions before the evolution of "freedom of the press."  This communication to the masses has helped rally a people to stand up and say "enough" to a "tyrant" across the sea.  When the bells of freedom rang and our government was born, freedom of the press was recognized as an important tenant to secure in the bylaws of this new nation.  As scores of years passed, the press gained strength in prodding society with emotion.  The full arm of the press was perhaps culminated in the early 1900's. 

Poised to tilt the scales of the First World War, America was thrust head first into the conflict throttled with sentiments stoked by newspaper stories and political cartoons which depicted pointy-helmeted Germans skewering Belgian babies on their bayonets.  Walter Lippmann, former head of wartime propaganda under Woodrow Wilson and then journalist and media critic characterized the American public as a "bewildered herd" which could be swayed by the media and easily spooked with fear.  Indeed, the media has carried a "hot button" mentality over the public which is repeatedly pushed to sway opinion and sell. 

"Staunchly Republican for much of its life, and popular with working-class readers, the Call — founded in 1856 as the Daily Morning Call — was San Francisco's leading morning newspaper for several decades in the late 19th century. This front page is dated Dec. 18, 1903." Photo Credit: UCBerkeley News

"World War One propaganda poster depicting Germans as baby killers." Photo Credit: WakeUp2010

The Magnifying Glass

I see the media as a magnifying glass. For a magnifying glass to accomplish the magnification of an object, three things are needed: a lens, light and an object to be magnified. I see the lens as the press, light as public concern and the object as any particular issue of the day. Take Ebola, for instance. 

While Ebola should render some concern, it has become magnified way out of proportion to something of a caricature of the truth. Public concern is there as a function that we value our health and safety. Lack of knowledge has lit fire to the hysteria and reason is shadowed by the relentless news broadcasts about Ebola from every possible angle.

In my hometown, a "breaking news" story came across the wire a few days back that a person is being monitored for Ebola. As it turns out, someone is visiting our community from West Africa. On a similar scale, a friend of mine visiting from Africa stopped by yesterday to say hello. I later went to a family event and had my relatives express concern that I had been in contact with someone from Africa. Forget the fact that my friend is from Kenya which is geographically farther away from West Africa than Europe! My point in relaying all this is that we have come to a point where the fear button in American society is firmly in the hands of the media.

Bill O'Reilly Fear Mongering for Fox News on Talking Points "Why the Government is Not Protecting Us"

Health Consequences

Fear is unhealthy for our mind and body. I recall seeing a significant number of patients after the September 11 attacks who reported disorder in their life due to anxiety. While none of my patients had any direct link to the attacks, they uniformly became engulfed in the news coverage and relentless recounting of the tragedy from multiple different angles. Their sleep, activity levels and social interactions had declined significantly and they in effect were sent into a downward spiral.

Dr. E. Alison Holman studied the effects of September 11 on a random population and found that those who felt significantly stressed by the events had an increased rate of heart disease. Associations were made with increased television viewing of the events with stress/anxiety and heart disease. Holman has duplicated the association with stress recently with an analysis of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Interviewed subjects who watched at least six hours of coverage reported more stress and anxiety. While some obvious confounders exist with Dr. Holman's findings, the associations are important in our growing understanding in fear, the media and health consequences. When patients express irrational fears to me in counsel, I have come to ask about their exposure to the media. I now feel this association to be as important in symptomatology and cause as poor sleep, non-media-related emotional trauma or a genetic predisposition to anxiety.

"Age- and sex-adjusted odds ratios for mental disorders (12-month prevalence) among persons with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity."  WHO World Mental Health Surveys. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 2009:56. © 2009, World Health Organization.

Moving Forward

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's was immortalized with the famous words, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." He rallied Americans ripe with panic about financial crisis in the depression era, urging them to have faith and keep their money in banks and prevent further collapse. This generation rose out of the depression and brought America into a time of prosperity. In so many situations, fear leads to panic which only makes things worse. Society would be better off in quelling its fearful tendencies. While this may mean a more rational approach to things, it likely also means limiting exposure to the media. Stay informed, but do so objectively and in limited quantities. If you are feeling stressed and fearful seek counsel and maintain yourself with plenty of sleep, a healthy diet and some exercise.

Live, and live well.

 FDR’s First Inaugural Address: “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”:


1. Public Opinion.  Walter Lippmann, 1922.

2. Terrorism, Acute Stress, and Cardiovascular Health: A 3-Year National Study Following the September 11th Attacks, Holman et al, JAMA Psychiatry, January 2008.

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