Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself?

Are FDR's words relevant today?

Now is a perfect time to reflect on FDR's first inauguration speech - when the economic situation was far worse than it is now (excerpts as follows):
"This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance..." "In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things... Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment. Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for... We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well..." (When you get the chance, I recommend you read the whole speech here.)

Timely messages from this great speech include:
1. This great nation will endure as it has through all sorts of extreme challenges.
2. Fear itself is a key factor in making the economic problem worse.
3. Despite the hard economic times, we have much to be thankful for. (See my previous post Investing in Stress Reduction for more info on this.)
4. We must stand together to solve the problems.

Many people are living in fear that is made worse by constant consumption of news media. I am not a financial expert, so I would not presume to know the future course of our economy. (The financial experts, on the other hand, can correctly predict market direction almost 50% of the time.) We do, however, need to look at the motivations of the media who advise us. Keep in mind that one of the main goals of media is to keep you consuming it. If you quickly change the channel to another station, they don't make money. Watching people talk about financial "concerns" will likely not keep your eyes glued to the tube as much as talk of a financial "crisis."

Since this is a psychology blog, let's look at one more aspect of "the only thing to fear is fear itself." What is the fear of fear? In the extreme it can cause variety of psychological problems. For instance, people with agoraphobia may be so afraid of having a panic attack that they limit their activities. At its worst, a person with this disorder, may be too fearful to leave his house.

This fear of fear speaks to an issue pertinent to us all. It is an example of a what in Dialectical Behavior Therapy is called a secondary emotion. When an event happens, we may have a primary emotion. For example, if you break up with a significant other, you may have the primary emotion of being sad. If you think that you shouldn't be so sad, you may get sad about being sad. Being sad about being sad, angry about being angry, or fearful of being fearful are all examples of secondary emotions. These secondary emotions may prolong feelings of sadness, anxiety and anger. To avoid being stuck in any of these emotions, let go of thoughts of how your primary emotion should be different. Welcome how you feel, and the primary emotion relatively quickly comes and goes.

As we accept our feeling of fear, the fear does not last as long. Fear is an embodiment of our ancient fight-or-flight response. The adrenaline is released from our adrenal glands and heightens ones ability to physically react. This adrenaline response can be experienced in a number of ways including fear and worry. This fear and worry can be thought of as "distress" or bad stress. The adrenaline response can also be experienced as excitement or enthusiasm which can be thought of as "eustress" or good stress.

Interestingly, if you say the word "eustress' out loud, it sounds a lot like "use stress." Indeed, by using the adrenaline, you can convert the distress to eustress. When you feel stressed, you can try relaxing to classical music. Alternatively, let go of thoughts of how you should feel different, and then use the energy to rock out to the Black Eyed Peas! Even if you don't use the additional adrenaline to dance or run, you can enjoy the feeling of it flowing it through your veins!

Heeding to FDR's great words, will help you weather these difficult financial times.
Learning to experience your primary emotions without resistance, will help you weather all sorts of emotional storms.

More from Jay Winner M.D., FAAFP, DipABLM
More from Psychology Today