Deadly epidemics, airline crashes, terrorism, shark attacks, asteroid strikes, killer storms. How do we know what to worry about? In one of my first posts I described asking anxious clients how do they know what to worry about. And they answer that they don't, they worry about everything. Because what we want to do is know what to worry about, when to worry and how much time and energy to invest in it. And we don't do a very good job of it. We dwell on and overestimate the probability of almost impossibly unlikely events, worrying about mere possibilities while ignoring real probabilities.
For example. We agonized over Avian Flu which so far has killed no one in the U.S. yet we don't get vaccinated for the common flu which contributes to 36,000 American deaths every year. Or Mad Cow pathogen that might be (but almost certainly isn't) in our hamburger and less about cholesterol that contributes to heart disease that kills 700,000 of us annually. Here are a few more: 20% of all adults still smoke; 20 to 30 % of drivers and passengers don't use seat belts and two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. We cross the street against the light and rebuild hurricane-destroyed homes in the same spot. The bottom line is that in spite of the development of the human brain and intellectual function we're pretty bad at calculating real-world risks.So let's look briefly at why this is and, more importantly, what we can do about it.
In my post "Our Friend the Amygdala" (2/16/15) I described how the amygdala is the part of the brain that responds to immediate or perceived threat and then activates the body's defense system for flight or fright. It's task is the survival of the organism and it's always going to err on the side of caution, better safe than sorry.
However, the analytical part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, analyzes threat that unfolds more slowly and often comes to us through rumors or the news media (see Fearmongering, 6/23/14 & 7/7/14). Thus, we overthink or underthink the problem and this is where things get screwed up. The more pain or suffering anything causes, a shark attack for instance, the more we dread it, become more anxious about it and less precisely calculate the odds of it actually happening. In Fearmongering I talked about some of the catch phrases of Alarming Newspeak such as "it could happen here" or "it's only a matter of time" that the news media uses reporting on a possible threat.
So enough about what doesn't work and why and what we do wrong. Let's talk about what we can do differently that does work. First off, we have to step back and take a breath when we're confronted with a possible risk. Fear or threats, real and immediate, trigger an instant defensive survival response in the brain. The rattlesnake on the trail, deadly and immediate. There's no analyzing this, the brain reacts instantly and says "Get the hell out of here!" It's why we're still here four million years later.
If we stay in the emotional state our fear or anxiety is going to be amped up. Here's the hard part: We have to have one foot in the rational, critical thinking camp while the other foot is in the emotional, bouncing off the walls state. Simple but easier said than done.
Take a breath(s), literally, to get into a more calming state and then look at the hard facts. Where's the evidence, what's the likelihood, who says so? Much as most of us hate statistics, look at the data and check it out, remembering that data can be manipulated to support any point of view. More people die falling out of bed (1:2,000,000) than from snake bite (1:3,500,000).*
Bottom line is we need to know and understand where the real threats are so we can address them more effectively. Re-read my posts on Fearmongering. It's not just the media or the government who contribute to feeding our fears and anxieties, although they're probably the biggest culprits. So pay attention and think while maintaining an objective skepticism and then act. We'll all be better for it.
By the way, here are a few interesting odds for dying in various ways:*
Asteroid hitting Earth: 1:74,817,414--Terrorist attack: 1:10,000,000--Airliner crash: 1:20,000--
Lightning strike: 1:101,000--Shark attack:1:300,000,000--Chronic constipation: 1:2,215,900 (just had to throw that one in there)
*Depending on data sources
Next Time: ASSERTIVENESS