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Columnist
Only thing we have to fear is ... a long and often illogical list
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist

Construction cranes tower above One World Trade Center in New York, which is being rebuilt after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and the crash of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 9/10/2010 2:29 PM

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Fear is a fleeting thing.

In the wake of events nine years ago today, some office workers in the Sears Tower bought parachutes. People in suburban office buildings eyed every letter or package for anthrax. Homeowners stocked up on plastic sheets and duct tape. And the wail of sirens or the roar of a low-flying jet made us hold our breath.

Some people will kick off their Saturday morning by paying money to walk out on the glass-floored Skydeck on the 103rd story of the Willis Tower just for the thrill of visualizing that plunge. This summer's scenes of "Transformers 3" stunt actors parachuting onto the wreckage of Chicago streets amid explosions and gunfire was viewed as entertainment or an inconvenience to commuters, not as a spark to rekindle fears from 2001. The suburbs are alive with weekend soccer games and date nights, and the biggest fear in many minds might be whether the Bears offensive line can protect quarterback Jay Cutler on Sunday.

How can a day that might have been the scariest in American history stop being so scary?

"That's not easy to answer," begins Rolling Meadows psychologist David Carbonell, an author, member of the American Psychological Association and nationally recognized expert on fear and anxiety. "Most people will acclimate. They will adjust. Inside your brain you have the same color-coded alerts as Homeland Security. You think, 'I've been waiting eight weeks and nothing's happened: Go to green.' Time will push that stuff aside and we'll go on with our lives."

We didn't worry much about dying in a terrorist attack in 1994. That fear ratcheted up after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. But it was waning until Sept. 11, 2001. Now, even that fear has eased a bit.

Looking through Gallup polls, we've gotten ourselves in a tizzy about everything from Y2K (46 percent of Americans at the end of 1998 thought the Y2K computer glitch would mean "air traffic control systems will fail, putting air travel in jeopardy") to the West Nile virus (53 percent of Americans in a 2002 poll were worried about that).

"What we fear is often not proportional to the danger," Carbonell says. "Events we experience with strong emotions are recorded."

Those horrifying graphic scenes of planes crashing into skyscrapers have power. That's why we jacked up our fears of being killed in a terrorist attack even though far more suburbanites and Americans died in 2001 from peptic ulcers.

"Most years in this country, more people get killed by donkeys than in commercial airline crashes," says Carbonell, whose practice hosts popular workshops for people with a fear of flying but nothing about overcoming donkey terror. "All kinds of everyday things are far more dangerous."

You hear far less about deadly-but-boring kidney inflammation than you do about extremely rare-but-dramatic shark attacks.

The amount of fear we harbor often correlates with the amount of control we maintain.

"This is why people fear flying over driving," Carbonell says, explaining that human confidence in our ability to steer our way out of danger is why we feel safer when we are behind the wheel.

Carbonell deals often with patients who suffer from panic attacks and worry: "What if I'm driving, or what if I'm at Woodfield and can't find my car, or what if I'm in church and have a panic attack?"

Those fears fuel far more psychiatrist visits than do worries about nuclear dirty bombs or bouts of bird flu.

But those more newsworthy fears still merit a little fear-generation.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say it's good, but it's natural," Carbonell says, noting our ability to fear is hard-wired into the human experience. "That's an essential part of our nature to have those alerting mechanisms."

Problems arise when we confuse our perceptions with reality and assume "if I'm afraid, I must be in danger," the psychologist adds. The key is not to "oppose and resist" our fears, but to "accept and work" on them.

Today's world offers us plenty of chances to do that.