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Fear

Managing the Effects of Secondary Stress

Lived experience and the media we consume: Our fear center reacts to both.

Key points

  • News networks tend to stimulate the fear response in the human brain, prompting people to enter a state of defensiveness.
  • The amygdala struggles to discriminate between threats that exist in one's immediate reality versus those consumed via technology.
  • A "balanced diet" of media consumption (including positive and negative stories) can help mitigate the fearful effect of news.

I recently received this message from a family member: “Have you seen what’s happening in the news? Humanity is hopeless.”

My initial reaction was a feeling of overwhelm. I see the same foreboding sense of fear play out nearly everywhere I go. The unrelenting nature of news media casts a shadow of doubt across each day. Stories of war-torn countries and COVID-infected cities remind us that we’re inherently vulnerable and the promise of journalism, to keep us “informed,” leaves us feeling like the only way to remain safe is to continue subjecting ourselves to stories of trauma and tragedy so that we can be prepared for what happens next. As if the onslaught of information will somehow shield us from catastrophe and galvanize us to action. Does it sell stories? Absolutely. Do you know what else it sells? Fear.

Fear is, in essence, the electrical stimulation of the central nucleus of the amygdala—our first executive system. This part of our brain is capable of learning to pair any thought, feeling, or sensation with a fear response and eventually we condition ourselves to recognize specific experiences as threatening (Cozolino, 2014). If a stranger approaches you in a dark alley, you run. If a car is barreling towards you at an intersection, you bolt. If you see a snake with a rattling tail, you flee. It’s sort of our adaptive cruise control, if you will, and it’s hardwired into the human brain. All mammals share in this survival response, it isn’t unique to humans. However, the way that we process fear is far more nuanced and complex.

Consider the way that a gazelle reacts when being hunted by a lion: She runs until she reaches safety, at which point the threat is resolved and the stress cycle completes. Humans, on the other hand, have a unique ability to anticipate threat. This is why we ruminate about the possibility of a loved one dying, or we rehearse tragedy before it happens. The part of our brain that is responsible for keeping us at the ready for looming threat is called the BNST. Unlike the amygdala, it doesn’t activate a fight/flight/freeze response, but it does stimulate low levels of prolonged arousal—something we more commonly refer to as anxiety. Research suggests that the BNST is involved with activating a sense of concern over a long period of time. It may help us to look beyond our present moment and assess threats that exist in the distant future, activating a myriad of behavioral reactions and creating a state of defensive preparedness for potential danger. Sometimes it's helpful, sometimes it drives us mad.

We also rely on these two systems (the BNST and the amygdala) to inform what's called prospection, or "the act of pre-experience" (Gilbert & Wilson, 2007). By combining new information (ie: masks protect against COVID-19) with our previously encoded memories (COVID-19 is a potentially deadly virus that I do not wish to contract), we become experts at simulating the future and building entire frames of reference with nothing more than our mind’s eye. When recalling how a past experience resulted in danger or threat, we learn to appropriately prepare before the risk presents itself. In psychology, this phenomenon is called having a “memory for the future." We double-check that our car is emptied of valuables before parking it in a garage where we’ve experienced a break-in once before. We walk slowly across an icy sidewalk after falling on our faces the previous week. This behavior is adaptive—a direct response to lived experience.

But what about fear born of experiences that we haven’t lived? Experiences that have little to do with us at all? This is where it gets complicated. Over the past 30 years, advancing technology has made it particularly difficult to discriminate between lived experience and the digital ones that flood our devices each day.

Consider for a moment, an average day in your life. Perhaps you get up, eat breakfast, and ride the Peloton. Then, while taking your dog for a walk, a passing car has to slam on the breaks, scaring you a bit. You go home, work for a few hours and engage in several heated email exchanges with your boss. Then you break for lunch, continue working until it’s time to prepare dinner, and finish the night with a glass of wine and a Netflix show. In this particular scenario, the only significant sources of stress in your day were the screeching car and the heated emails. Not bad.

Now, consider the experiences that you were exposed to over the course of the same day: On Facebook, you read the obituary of an old friend who died of cancer. On Instagram, you see photos of American soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan. The New Yorker runs a piece about a new variant of COVID-19. The news airs a 20th-anniversary special about 9/11. You experience vicarious stress at every click.

This vignette illustrates the idea that the memories we encode each day are not only events that we’ve lived, they’re also events that we’ve been exposed to online or in the news and our fear centers are reacting to both. Researchers who set out to study secondhand stress found that 26% of people showed elevated levels of cortisol just by observing someone who was stressed and 24% showed a stress response after watching a video of strangers enduring a stressful event. This empathic reaction is evidence of our susceptibility to overwhelm in a world that is structured around the rapid dissemination of information (Engert et al., 2014.)

News networks stimulate our fear response. By catering to our fear networks and exposing us to the worst of what’s happening in the world, they trigger our brains to enter a state of defensiveness—scanning, assessing, and preparing for perceived threats. Our amygdala struggles to discriminate between threats that exist right in front of us and threats that enter our orbit via smartphones or breaking news. Instead of recognizing that while we may feel overwhelmed with panic about the fact that COVID-19 cases are on the rise, we, ourselves, are still healthy. The consistent exposure to trauma, tragedy, and grief blurs the line between our own personal experiences and the experiences of everyone we see on social media or read about online. The anxiety associated with processing other people’s pain leaves us vulnerable to unnecessary hopelessness and self-destruction.

In a perfect world, we could simply stop engaging with the mediums that trigger unnecessary fear. We would live like the gazelles live and respond only to the threats that involve us directly. Alas, the world isn’t perfect and technology isn’t going away. Instead, we have to take it upon ourselves to carefully mediate our relationship to the information that we consume. Here are three ways to mitigate secondary stress.

Think of technology like a diet

Just as we practice mindfulness about the food that we eat or the alcohol that we drink, we have to think of the information that we consume as either nourishing or toxic. If we expose ourselves to negative media all day long, we’re going to have a hard time feeling safe in the world, even when there is no direct threat to our person. For every negative news story that you consume, try to counter it with a positive one. While it’s tempting (and natural) to orient around fear, remind your brain that there is good in the world.

Prime yourself before reading or watching the news

Think back to the idea of prospection. The fact that you can pre-experience a future scenario can actually be used for good when it comes to the consumption of news. If you find yourself falling victim to stress-inducing coverage, take a moment to remind yourself of that before you open the news app. Consider saying to yourself, “I know that I’m probably going to see and read about things that warrant fear and concern. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I’m going to log off.”

Counter fear with fact

Combatting secondary stress requires that we counter our fear with fact: Just because we see something terrible in the news, does not mean that it’s going to happen to us. Just because we’re capable of imagining ourselves in the shoes of someone else, doesn’t mean we should exist within that frame of mind. By re-calibrating to our surroundings and separating ourselves from the stories we read, we can exercise some control over our stress response before it spirals.

The news sells fear, but you don’t have to buy it. The better you understand your susceptibility to negative media, the easier it will be to monitor and mitigate the effects that it has on your body. In today's world, staying informed is important but staying healthy is essential.

References

Cozolino, Louis J., author. The Neuroscience of Human Relationships : Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. New York :W.W. Norton & Company, 2014. APA.

Engert V, Ragsdale AM, Singer T. Cortisol stress resonance in the laboratory is associated with inter-couple diurnal cortisol covariation in daily life. Hormones and Behavior. 2018 Feb;98:183-190.

Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2007). Prospection: Experiencing the future. Science, 317(5843), 1351–1354.

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