At the heart of the Cold War, the ever-present nuclear threat had a profound effect on the American psyche. Children hiding under desks during air raid drills during the 1960s and 1970s had longer-term implications in terms of mental and physical health as studies in the 1980s revealed.
A big problem at the time was the widespread knowledge of the perceived risk, which spread like a contagion. According to a Canadian study published in 1986, those most affected were children, teenagers, caretakers and the unemployed. While teens tended to be cynical, children responded with anxiety.
Flash forward to 2017, and as North Korea and the United States exchanged mutual threats over the past few weeks, the question is: What effect does this bluster have on the psyche of the average U.S. citizen? With 24-hour cable news and social media now broadcasting this saber-rattling into a huge megaphone, with every tweet from President Trump and every moment of nuclear chest-thumping by Kim Jong-un being analyzed under a media microscope, are we now panicking and spreading even more fear than at the heart of the Cold War?
The essential problem is that we do not assess risk as calmly as we think we do, we are driven by fear and fear memories that are hard-wired deep into our brain. Animals rely on this primitive mechanism for their survival from predators. An almond-shaped organ deep in the brain known as the amygdala connects with the prefrontal cortex and initiates a stress hormone-driven emotional response that overrides reason. Inherited “fight or flight” readies us for danger even if the danger is perceived rather than real. These fear reactions are stored and then reactivated when something happens to remind us. We panic and overpersonalize the risk.
Preparation for a disaster may also backfire by triggering fear. If we stockpile supplies such as potassium iodide pills, for example, to protect thyroid glands in the event of a sudden burst of radiation, we are actually signaling our bodies and our minds that such an attack may be in the offing. When Guam released a set of guidelines instructing citizens how to respond in the case of a nuclear attack, they risked increasing fears by making the danger seem even more imminent than it actually was.
Keep in mind that an individual’s unique reaction to perceived danger not only diminishes well-being; it can also spread through an entire society. We became less secure mentally, emotionally and physically during the Cold War. Nuclear fears — along with the cognitive, emotional and behavioral manifestations of them — became permanently embedded in the American psyche. Nuclear fear memories are being reawakened now. We risk entering an unhealthy cycle of worry where we don’t sleep well, we are more anxious, and our heart rate and blood pressure go up.
What to do?
New York University researcher Elizabeth Phelps has shown that we can retrain our brains to extinguish fear memories, almost like the character Alex did in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
A more direct approach is to find someone to relate to who can project courage instead of fear, as research has shown that strong positive emotions such as courage can suppress the amygdala from initiating a fear response.
Our country’s presidents have a long history of standing up to danger and galvanizing the population, beginning with George Washington: “The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of the army.” And Lincoln: “It often requires more courage to dare to do right than to fear to do wrong.” And Roosevelt: “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And Reagan: “Tear down this wall.” And George W. Bush: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
President Trump acted in this great tradition of strength when he stood up to Kim Jong-un and threatened him back, warning of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and that U.S. forces were “locked and loaded.” The American public could relate to this courage shown by the president rather than fear and worry generated by the nuclear danger.
Relating to our military and moral strength and courage helps us to remain calm in the face of a petulant dictator.
Mr. Kim has repeatedly watched allied threats prove to be merely posturing. When previous leaders responded to him with “tolerance” (as Susan Rice suggested) or strong words with no demonstrable actions (as Barack Obama demonstrated), the brinkmanship rewarded Mr. Kim. While this approach may have delayed imminent danger in the short term, the world faces increasing and inevitable danger in the long term. Psychologists know that rewarding temper tantrums leads inevitably to more tantrums.
The “bully on a playground” mentality dictates that you never back down against a murderous bully like Mr. Kim, who rules through fear and intimidation. As Kennedy said, “It is an unfortunate fact that we can only secure peace by preparing for war.”
In the case of North Korea, the strategy of strength and a strong presidential backbone worked again. As of this past Wednesday, Mr. Kim had delayed a decision on attacking Guam. President Trump didn’t rub his victory in, tweeting, “Kim Jong-un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision.”
For the American public, it was a victory for courage over fear.
• Marc Siegel, a physician, is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Health. He is the author of “False Alarm, The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear” (Wiley, 2006). Gina Loudon, a physician, is an author and TV analyst on the psychology of politics.
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