Weaponized Fear and Our Health

On a warm June day in 1950, 53-year-old Senator Margaret Chase Smith stepped to the rostrum in the chamber of the United States Senate. With a steady, measured tone, she delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” warning America and her Senate colleagues of the dangers of riding “to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear.”

She was of course referring to McCarthyism, the widespread campaign of fear spearheaded by Senator Joe McCarthy who sat just yards away as she spoke. And while that June day was comfortably warm in Washington, the summer to follow would rage in the heat of the “Red Scare” fever that infected the nation.

Nearly 70 years after Senator Smith’s speech, America’s success in heeding her admonitions can be best summed up like this:


Fear has in fact become a lodestone of today’s America. From the global fear of a nuclear exchange with any of several belligerent dictators, to the hyperlocal fear that neighbors feel for each other, our era and its politics are dominated by fear. And as Simon Sinek notes, “when fear is employed, facts are incidental.”

As a clinician, I deeply appreciate how hard it is to resist the physiology of fear. Our brain’s response to fear originates within our most id-like reptilian neuroanatomy – the amygdala. When faced with a fear-inducing stimulus, the amygdala dutifully beckons upon the hypothalamic-pituitary axis and activates our “fight or flight” reaction. This squeezes our adrenal glands, flooding the bloodstream with enough cortisol and epinephrine to send our bodies into overdrive and help us escape chaos.

But when chaos is ever-present and inescapable we wind up living each day in a state of ongoing fear. Our bodies strain under the stress of a chronically-activated fight or flight pathway, wreaking havoc on our health. The toll of this unrelenting stream of fear upon our nation’s health is already well-documented in reductions in life expectancy, dramatic increases in substance abuse, and a rising risk of dying from “deaths of despair.

And yet medical school also taught me that no matter how deeply ingrained the fear response lives inside our brains, we can still choose to respond differently. Despite an increasingly hostile and increasingly ubiquitous rhetoric of fear, we are not inextricably bound to responding to fear with fear. We can instead choose instead to take control, respond with truth, compassion, and understanding, and again be inspired to trust each other.

Trust, like compassion, is grounded in truth and biologically linked to oxytocin. It takes much more effort for our brains to cultivate trust than it does to react to fear with fear, as oxytocin appears to only exert its trust-building effects under just the right social circumstances. But when it works it shouldn’t be surprising that increases in oxytocin are linked to decreased activity within the amygdala. Physiologic proof that we can (and perhaps must) actively work to convince our brain to overcome reptilian fear.

That’s exactly how McCarthyism met it’s end. On another June day, this time in 1954, Senator McCarthy stood questioning Army Counsel Joseph Welch in the midst of the nationally-televised Army-McCarthy hearings. Having spent the better part of a month attacking the Army for being “soft on communism,” the Senator lit into one of Welch’s young associates who wasn’t present to defend himself. Welch, and the rest of America for that matter, had finally had enough:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness… If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me… At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

As FDR once said, fear is a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While the threads of fear run deep, we are not slaves to the fight or flight response. We can instead choose how we respond to the world, and how we choose to respond through both word and action reinforces our physiology.

We must choose to stop allowing ourselves to fall victim to those who use fear as a behavioral weapon. Instead, we must choose to take the harder path; a path that requires speaking and confronting hard truths, and investing the time required to understand each other and allow the seeds of trust and compassion to grow.

Our own health, and the health of our nation, depends upon it.

About the Author

Dr. Chris DeRienzo is a dedicated husband, a proud father, and a mediocre triathlete, striving to be a spectacle of the human engine driven at full speed. He’s also a physician executive dedicated to improving health for all Americans. You can read more about him at www.drderienzo.com or follow him on Twitter

1 Comment

  1. This is a powerful post with such an inspiring message for today!

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