Comforting Fears

In the last few weeks, following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks there has been an upsurge in referrals to our offices for anxiety. Many more people are displaying greater fear as they go through their routines. More people are making their way through their daily routines with intensified concerns often coupled with panic.
Others, without any outward expression of fear, people are speaking about where they should or should not go. Travel plans have been changed, some airlines are cutting flights or using smaller planes and locally people seem to be avoiding trips to the mall.

A big part of my job is to help teach people how to cope with fear, reduce their anxiety and be resilient. I know the effects of stress on the body. When the stress hormone, cortisol, functions normally it helps regulate blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin. It also aids in fat and protein metabolism. What cortisol is best known for, however, is the boost of energy it gives a body when it is experiencing stress. The short term bursts of this hormone into the blood stream- the fight or flight mechanism of survival – are normal and helpful.
When one has continual stress too much cortisol is secreted into the blood stream. If it is secreted over an extended period of time cortisol becomes destructive. Higher levels of this hormone can lead to poor immune function, increased weight gain, high blood pressure and cholesterol, decreased bone density, difficulty remembering and difficulty learning.

People sometimes try to stay calm by avoiding the things they fear but it is unhealthy to hide away and give in to fears. Avoidance can lead to more intense anxiety and phobias. There are healthy ways to cope with anxiety and overcome panic and fear. Learning some basic cognitive behavioral techniques including mindfulness, self-talk and how to reevaluate concerns in a levelheaded fashion are tools that help to still a lot of anxieties. So does having a leader that is perceived as strong and strategic in reacting to the root causes of fear.

With the ongoing lone wolf attacks in Israel and throughout the West some of my more anxious acquaintances begged me to cancel a recent trip I was making. The less fearful warned me to be “especially careful.” I did not alter my original plans. The trip was productive not least of all because we walked the streets and traveled wherever we had planned feeling little to no fear. No doubt when we saw a large contingent of police we raised our vigilance levels but we did not allow panic to rule. It was abundantly clear that most of the locals were also going about their day to day routines in a very normal pattern.

It is true that Israelis have had reason to be panicky and anxious more than most, at least until recently but while they are usually more aware of their surroundings they do not as a group easily give into the fear those of who do not seem to regularly live with attacks do. I attribute that resilience to two distinct leitmotifs. The first is that anxiety is a zero sum reaction, there is nothing to be gained from free floating anxiety. If you live in a high stress area it is best to learn to live with your fears and control the reaction. It is not healthy to let your cortisol get out of control, it is destructive. Feeling calm, exercising and maintaining social contacts help to keep the anxiety and cortisol in check.

The second theme is the comfort that a strong leadership offers. Knowing that there are people in charge who understand the situation, are empathetic and able to realistically address concerns is highly comforting. It is perhaps for this reason when I returned this past Sunday from my recent trip and anticipated hearing Mr. Obama’s Oval office address on terrorism I was somewhat disappointed. True he said more than ever before about the threat of radicalism, saying we will overcome it is nice, but he simply did not indicate a true awareness about worldwide fears and concerns. Without that comfort I am not surprised to see anxiety levels rise.

About the Author
Dr Michael Salamon, is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and a 2018 APA Presidential Citation Awardee. He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications) and "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America). His newest book is called "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."