The Paranoia Switch : How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior--and How We Can Reclaim Our Courage
On September 11, 2001, the "Fear Switch" in our brains got flicked. How do we turn it off and reclaim our lives?
Five years after September 11, we're still scared. And why not? Terrorists could strike at any moment. Our country is at war. The polar caps are melting. Hurricanes loom. We struggle to control our fear so that we can go about our daily lives. Our national consciousness has been torqued by trauma, in the process transforming our behavior, our expectations, our legal system.
In The Myth of Sanity, Martha Stout, who until recently taught at the Harvard Medical School, analyzed how we cope with personal trauma. In her national bestseller The Sociopath Next Door, she showed how to avoid suffering psychological damage at the hands of others. Now, in The Paranoia Switch, she offers a groundbreaking clinical, neuropsychological, and practical examination of what terror and fear politics have done to our minds, and to the very biology of our brains.
In this timely and essential book, Stout assures us that we can interrupt the cycle of trauma and look forward to a future free of fear only by understanding our own paranoia--and what flips the paranoia switch.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Sarah Crichton Books
September 03, 2007
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from The Paranoia Switch by Martha Stout
Of all the tyrannies on human kind, The worst is that which persecutes the mind.
- JOHN DRYDEN
Would you like to feel safe again in your own country?
If your answer is yes, like most people's, then you are personally involved in a struggle even more crucial than the war on terror. Though you probably have been only dimly aware of your situation, you have been fighting this battle for a number of years now, and the outcome of your private crisis will affect your future, and your children's, even more fundamentally than the success or failure of global terrorism. It is a struggle that your ancestors, from nearly all countries, have been through many times before, after man-made tragedies during the last five thousand years or so. Too often, they have lost the fight, but sometimes,by the skin of their teeth--and just well enough to keep human society going--they have endured. And here we are, doing battle with it once again.
Let me show you what I mean.
Spend a moment--and it will take no longer than a moment in this case--searching for some memories. What were you doing on the morning of September 11, 2001? This is an easy question to answer, is it not? You can recall precisely. What was your first thought when you discovered the news about the World Trade Center? Where were you? If you have children, where were they? Where were your other family members? Your closest friends? Whom did you speak with first? How did you feel on that day?
I imagine that you have immediate and extremely vivid memories to answer most, perhaps all, of these questions. Those of us who were adults or adolescents on September 11, 2001, will carry these memories to our graves, in a way that far exceeds our normal capacity to remember most things. We will be able to recall small details--the weather where we were, what we had been about to do but stopped doing, exactly which telephone we picked up--as if we had tiny videotapes in our heads.
But now search for another memory. Try to recall something--anything--about the morning of September 10, 2001, a mere twenty-four hours earlier. What were you doing then? Where were you? Where were the people you love? How did you feel on that day? Most of you will be unable to answer a single one of these questions. I know that I cannot.
Less specifically--which, by rights, should be much easier to remember--what was life in general like for you during the summer of 2001, before the disasters? Overall, what kind ofmood were you in? What were your major plans for that fall and winter? What projects did you have going? What were you dreading and what were you looking forward to, back then? Is it difficult to recall what life was like before international terrorism arrived in the United States? Even when you stop and concentrate, do the memories feel a little equivocal?
It is disproportionately hard to remember our lives as they were prior to the catastrophes of September 11, 2001. We can recall many of the most prominent objective events of our pre-2001 existence as well as ever, of course, but we know that the psychological fabric of our lives was somehow different, that we felt a different way, that we were, in effect, different people before the reality of terrorism was force-fed into our consciousnesses. And our memory of this is foggy, dim, and keeps slipping away when we try to hold it still for reflection. We simply cannot reconstruct the way we used to feel, and really, it is impossible to remember exactly who we were before those indestructible towers were obliterated.
We felt happier then. We felt safer. We were more trusting, less paranoid. We were ... What were we?
We can recall 9/11 vividly, and are hard pressed to remember ourselves well before that day, because, on September 11, 2001, and in the years that have followed, fear has altered our very brains. The "fear switch" in our brains was pushed--pushed suddenly and very hard--by the attack, and has been pressed over and over again, though more subtly, in the years since that initial group nightmare. From neuropsychological research, we know that the traumatized brain houses inscrutable eccentricities that cause it to overreact--or, more precisely, misreact--to the current realities of life. These neurological misreactions becomeestablished because trauma has a profound effect on the secretion of stress-responsive neurohormones such as norepinephrine. Such neurohormones affect various areas of the brain involved in memory, particularly a part of the brain called the limbic system. Certain aspects of our memories are weakened in this way by psychological trauma, and certain other aspects become disproportionately powerful. In other words, for many of us, the functioning of our gray matter may actually be changed at this point, making it difficult for us to reconstruct memories of exactly how we were, and how we used to feel, though we were substantially different but a few years ago--and of course, making it impossible to forget the traumatic images seared into our brains. We cannot remember ourselves clearly; still, we feel strangely homesick for the way we used to be, whatever that was.
Even now, some years later, we are a great deal more anxious, cautious--and we do not like it. We snap at the person who stands a bit too close to us in the airport baggage line. Or, contrastingly, we warmly thank the security agent as he confiscates our fingernail scissors, because we are frightened of the inscrutable "others" who might be trying to bring more sinister cutting tools aboard the plane. We complain wistfully that we cannot allow our children to travel the neighborhood so freely as we did when we were young. With bated breath, we watch a lot more television news than we used to. And we reminisce about the good old days, when worrying about the likes of a little manicure scissors would have been simply laughable, although those days are becoming foggier, even dreamlike, in our minds.
In a world not at all lacking in traumatic events, how did those particular acts of terrorism manage to burn so deeply into the very biology of hundreds of millions, in what seemed likeless than a heartbeat, leaving us homesick for the way we had been feeling just the moment before? After all, personally, very few people knew anyone who perished in New York or Washington, or in the hijacked planes. When we think rationally about our individual experiences, many of us can identify losses that were closer to us, that have caused us more personal pain and grief than did the events we saw only in pictures on that day, images that nearly all of us were viewing from a great geographical distance. And in truth, on many occasions prior to 2001, beginning in our very first history class in grade school, most of us had already heard stories of objectively greater mass death and mayhem. Still, 9/11 grabbed us by the throat like nothing else. It changed us emotionally, behaviorally, spiritually. It caused people of conscience to fear for the future of the whole human world, and to wonder, sometimes subliminally and sometimes quite consciously, what the true nature of that world might be in the first place. Were humans basically good and decent beings, and making slow but steady progress, two steps forward and one step back, toward a higher civilization, perhaps symbolized by the Twin Towers themselves? Or was the human race hopelessly vengeful and violent, and headed for nothing better than the ashes and dust of its own self-destruction?
We live our lives in our heads and in our hearts. We live for our dreams, and on faith. Even scientists live on faith, though it may be only the tacit (and distinctly unscientific) belief that something about human beings makes them worthy of continued survival. September 11, 2001, made us question all that--our dreams, our faith, our worthiness to survive on this otherwise hospitable blue and green planet. And there simply is no greater fear, or primal shame, than the one that speaks to usof the End, the one that whispers, You do not deserve to be here--you are about to be banished by fire from your home.
For a moment, we all glimpsed the end, not just the end of our individual existences, but the possibility of the termination of humankind. As I describe in The Myth of Sanity, an event is officially "traumatic" only if it opens in the mind a corridor to the apprehension of our essential helplessness and the possibility of death. In this fashion, and in a big way, 9/11 officially traumatized nearly all of us.
For more than twenty-five years, I have been a psychotherapist for people who have survived psychological trauma. I have studied how trauma alters the mind and the brain itself. I have witnessed the suffering and the triumphs of hundreds of patients, and have written about the ways in which people can heal the damage done to them. And I feel an increasing urgency to tell the psychological victims of terrorism that they too can recover. The process of recovery from trauma can be divided into four components, and so this book, as well, is composed of four parts. First, I will provide you with a way to assess how much you personally are struggling with fear and anxiety. Next, we will address head-on the phenomenon of terrorism--its effects on us, its realities and myths, its likely time frame--just as a patient in therapy would come face-to-face with the realistic memory of her or his trauma. In the third portion of the book, I will describe how to protect oneself successfully against future perpetrators, who, in this case, are the leaders and would-be leaders who practice the politics of fear. And finally, I can tell you how to plan for a more serene future, one that includes hope, the very hope that terrorism is designed to steal from a nation of people.
Terrorism's anti-hope strategy was instantly successful in the United States. Immediately after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a Pew Research Center survey found that eight out of ten women and six out of ten men felt depressed. This means that, in the space of one morning in September, four fifths of all American women and three fifths of all American men were thrust into psychological depression. The people who were interviewed described recurrent unwelcome images of the horrifying events, replaying in their heads. And research on national samples in the United States, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, revealed that, three to five days after the attack, 44 percent of ordinary Americans reported at least one clinical symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These symptoms included (among other disturbing experiences) nightmares, dissociative reactions, impaired concentration, exaggerated startle responses, panic attacks, and shattered self-confidence. In other words, closing in on half of all Americans were, to a greater or lesser degree, suddenly behaving like psychological trauma patients.
Even those of us who did not show clinical signs of PTSD felt acutely guilty when we listened to happy music, or read books irrelevant to the catastrophe, or went to purely entertaining movies. And so, for a while, many of us stopped, almost completely.
Two months later, a Los Angeles Times poll indicated that 31 percent of respondents felt their personal sense of security was still "a great deal" shaken. This poll emphasized that the size of the group of Americans reporting a lost sense of security had not diminished appreciably since the first few days after the attack. About one in five of the Americans questioned in November2001 actually believed they would "likely" be hurt or killed in a terrorist attack, such as the bombing of a building or a plane, and one in four were convinced they would be hurt or killed by an act of bioterrorism.
The attack, along with the media reiterations of it, had dramatic effects on our physical health as well. Study findings presented at the 2002 Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association showed that, for individuals with defibrillators implanted surgically because of preexisting heart conditions, life-threatening heart rhythms more than doubled in the month after the attack. The AHA researchers speculated that a preoccupation with media coverage may have had as much to do with causing the arrhythmias as the events themselves. Supporting this speculation, most post-9/11 studies have found a strong association between media exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder, demonstrating that stress reactions to the attack were and are more common in people who watch a lot of television.
In 2002, at the one-year anniversary of the attack, a CNN/Time magazine poll reported that 30 percent of adult Americans--nearly a third--said they still thought about 9/11 every single day. And perhaps the most troubling finding of all, in its implications for the future, concerned a group of people not even born at the time of the attack. Scientists from the University of Edinburgh, in the UK, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York, followed the infants of thirty-eight women who had been pregnant while at or near the attack on the World Trade Center. The study, published in 2005 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, reported that when they were a year old, the babies of those mothers who had developed post-traumatic stress disorder showed low levels of thestress hormone cortisol. Reduced cortisol levels have been linked with vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder. The results of the study present the far-reaching suggestion that maternal post-traumatic stress disorder may have transgenerational effects beginning when a child is in utero, and the researchers are following the babies as they grow up, to see whether they will go on to develop psychological disorders of their own.
Pre-9/11 research had already shown that the grown children of World War II Holocaust survivors tended to have low levels of cortisol, and scientists had concluded that this condition was the eventual result of the traumatic stories told to the offspring by their parents. But now, the age of the offspring involved in the post-9/11 study--a year or less--strongly suggested that some part of the trauma transmission mechanism predated birth, and was, in fact, biological.
The attack on 9/11 psychologically devastated us and our children, more even than we realized at the time. On account of it, we were and remain vulnerable, as individuals and as a population. And so, enter the advantage-takers, beginning before we had even finished counting the dead and continuing to this moment, the worst of the politicians and the greedy and the just plain ignorant, from the level of our townships and cities to the unreachable echelons of national and international power.
Juxtaposed with the immensely beautiful acts of the firefighters and police and other rescue workers, the selflessness of so many doctors and nurses and engineers and anonymous citizens, and the mystically poignant outpourings of grief and compassion and solidarity from people all over the world, came the increasingly frequent news reports of the Ground Zero con artists and their astonishingly selfish agendas. From our televisions, we heard thevoice of a young man shouting, "Bicycle tour! Guided tour of Ground Zero! Only ten dollars!" And we learned about the hustlers on Manhattan street corners who approached shell-shocked citizens to solicit "contributions" to nonexistent charities, and the would-be identity thieves who collected the Social Security numbers of the missing from the bereaved, assuring them that the information would be helpful in identifying bodies.
In a letter to the 110th Precinct Community Council, police captain Natale Galatioto assured the people of his Queens, New York, neighborhoods, "We are working hard not to give our streets back to scoundrels who may see this tragedy as an opportunity."
Somewhat more subtle were the politicians, some sincere and some merely selfish, who used our fears to secure our allegiance (and our votes). Fear platforms typically implied something along the lines of "Vote for me, or the terrorists will strike us again!" Perhaps the most hotly debated American example of "fear politics" was then Vice President Dick Cheney's direct remark at a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 8, 2004: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, and we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States." Speeches playing on our existing fears were made by candidates on both sides of the American political fence, and we accumulated a new vocabulary of menace to rival any apocalyptic novel: weaponized anthrax, Office of Total Information Awareness, orange alert, terrorist cell, dirty bomb, axis of evil, WMDs, shock and awe, perpetual war.
A separate struggle with terror began to emerge, between thefrightened and the scaremongers, between the genuinely caring majority and the selfish impostors--between reason and bewildering anxiety, American idealism and the unthinking fight-or-flight instinct, our newfound sense of global unity and the primitive lust for revenge. And for a while, whatever victories we claimed in the official war on terror, it seemed that this separate struggle, the one in our minds and in our society, was a fight we were losing. We bought bottled water and books on survivalism and new surveillance systems and community police stations. We trimmed financing from literature and the arts, medical research, environmental concerns, and our children's community schools. Terrified and confused, we questioned our ideals and abandoned many of them willy-nilly: our privacy and perhaps too many of our liberties, our sense of tolerance and fair play, and a majority of the painful, important truths we had learned from waging past wars. Then, frustratingly, almost unbelievably, subsequent research informed us that all these contortions of our values and all these costly sacrifices had not served to make us one whit safer. And to our shock, in natural disasters later on, we realized that our protective infrastructure had been weakened rather than strengthened.
As it turned out, we needed some hope and clear thinking, and some encouraging, pragmatic leadership, much more than we needed stored supplies of duct tape.
With the understanding sometimes available only in retrospect, now we are beginning to realize that wrestling with our fear, and with those who would profit from our fear--even more than the war on outside terrorists--is the crucial struggle, the one that will more fundamentally affect our future and our children's. It is not that protecting ourselves, especially at home,is unimportant. On the contrary, now more than ever before, we need to do what we can to make our homeland safe--our cities and our transportation systems, our power plants and our food supplies. It is that these important tasks are much better done rationally, bravely, and well. Fear makes us frantic and alarmingly inefficient. And by definition, fear allows the terrorists, of all stripes, to win. Fear beguiles us further and further away from ourselves and our ideals, and from our priceless sense of security in our home--both our national home and our somewhat abstract human one. Fear is more widely destructive than anything we can be afraid of. Fear makes us do things we would not otherwise do.
And fear is contagious. As I will discuss in detail in later chapters, scientists have begun to study a fascinating brain process called limbic resonance, by which a part of the brain mentioned before as having to do with emotion and memory--the limbic system--can draw the emotions of a pair of people, or even a larger group, into congruence. One brain "tugs" on another to feel loving or joyful or angry or peaceful or hostile--or fearful. To use recognizable examples from the psychiatrist and writer Thomas Lewis, limbic resonance is what makes it more exciting, more romantic, or more teary-eyed to watch a movie with another person, rather than alone--and in less sanguine circumstances, it is what "sends waves of emotion rolling through a throng, making scattered individuals into a unitary, panicstricken herd or hate-filled lynch mob." Our limbic systems act as the antennae for and the broadcasters of our emotional states, and they make our affections, our hostilities, and our fears invisibly and wordlessly communicable.
The implications of limbic resonance for terrorism and fear politics are clear and alarming. Due to the nature of our neurological wiring, one terrorist act--or a single scaremongering leader--can electrify a large group of people with fear as if they were a circuit. This can happen rapidly, with no need for logical reasons, and without anyone understanding at all what has happened to the crowd. And, reverberating, mirroring itself again and again, the same charge of fear and paranoia can last for a very long time, more than long enough to embroil the group in irrational, disastrous decisions and acts that cannot easily be undone when the situation is finally calmed.
This vicious circle is terrorism's cruelest manipulation of the human mind. We in this country "discovered" it, agonizingly, beginning in the year 2001. But really, it is universal, and thousands of years old. It feeds voraciously on itself, and repeats and repeats. Even the unambiguous lessons of history regarding conflict and violence seem to be no match for this self-sustaining cycle of fear and irrationality, once it has been put in motion.
Can we ever learn to protect our minds--and our very brains--from terrorists of all kinds, from the petty sociopaths who violate our personal lives, to the various fundamentalists and the power-hungry who commit mass violence, and the leaders who, for their own gain, would amplify our group fears into hatred and war? In this book, you will read a positive answer to this question. It has been my privilege, as a behavioral scientist and a therapist for trauma survivors, to work closely with people who have faced and overcome attacks and colossal fears in their individual lives. They get past their personal terrors, and then they rediscover themselves. I write this book,with its optimistic conclusion, based in part on my respect for these courageous people. I think that most of us, these days, could benefit from certain aspects of the trauma therapy they have braved, and will present my ideas about how such a societal trauma therapy might work. And in no small measure, I write this book on faith, albeit the faith of a scientist. I believe that, as individuals and as a species, we will ultimately win this psychological struggle, which is both very old and brand-new Maybe not all of us--but enough of us--will one day turn away from those who try to control us with our fears. Come with me and let us talk about how we are going to triumph in this ancient human contest, about how we are going to get past the real war on terror and find our way home--that secure and dignified place that most of us, all these months and years, have been longing for with all our minds and hearts.
As I have mentioned, the first step in any such recovery process is to assess the severity of the problem. If you are interested in exploring the level of your own general anxiety in this new age of terrorism and fear politics, you are invited to take a brief self-evaluation that I call The Walking-Around Anxiety Test, meaning that the test gauges the amount of anxiety you tend to carry around with you on an ordinary day. Answering these questions does not by any means constitute a clinical evaluation, nor will it sort out how much anxiety you are feeling due to terrorism as opposed to other issues. The self-test is intended only to give you a sense, in broad outline, of how anxious you are at this point in time. The questions here are some of the ones I often use in therapy evaluations, to help provide me with an initial impression of a new patient's level of anxiety or fear in his or her day-to-day life. Answering them can give you some idea of thedegree to which your own limbic system is broadcasting anxiety, or perhaps even receiving it.
Please be forewarned that your results may surprise you.
THE WALKING-AROUND ANXIETY TEST
Answer yes or no to each of the following questions. Try to answer each question based on your feelings and behavior this week.
1. When you sit still for a while, do you tend to have a "nervous habit": tapping your foot, or fidgeting with your hands (doodling, nail-biting, pencil-tapping, hair-twirling, etc.)?
2. Within the last week, have you had a dream you would describe as a nightmare?
3. Does your mind tend to "go blank" temporarily, or wander away from conversations?
4. Are you jumpy?
5. Within the last week, have you noticed a time when your breathing was shallow, or when you "forgot" to breathe for a moment?
6. Within the last week, have you noticed a time when your heart was racing, even without exercise?
7. Right now, are your palms sweaty?
8. Do you frequently notice that your muscles have gotten tense, particularly around your eyes, or in your neck or back?
9. Within the last week, has anyone told you to calm down, or to "stop worrying," or the like?
10. Is it hard for you to stop worrying?
11. Would you say that your mind is filled with worries more often than it is not?
12. At night, is your mind crowded with thoughts, making it difficult for you to fall asleep?
13. If you had not read or heard the news for a day (newspaper, radio, TV), would you feel uneasy?
14. Within the last week, has anyone said that you were being tense or irritable?
15. Within the last week, has there been any occasion when you worried you might lose control of yourself, or embarrass yourself?
16. When you are around a lot of other people, do you tend to feel trapped?
17. Does your mind tend to dwell on bad things that happened in the past?
18. Within the past week, has there been any occasion when you felt uneasy about leaving home?
19. Does there tend to be an unwanted thought or picture in your mind that you have trouble getting rid of?
20. This week, have you been going back to check on things more than once (locks on doors, burners on stoves, etc.)?
21. Do you often feel restless, or as if you are supposed to be doing something else?
Now count the number of your yes answers. If you answered yes to seven or fewer of the questions, it is likely that your general anxiety level is not causing you much discomfort. If you gave a yes answer to between eight and fourteen of the questions, your anxiety level may be somewhat elevated. Perhaps you experience this as mild to moderate discomfort in your day-to-day life. This level of anxiety is not alarming; still, it may be placing unnecessary limits on your happiness. If you answered yes to fifteen or more of the questions, your anxiety level is likely to be making you very uncomfortable, and in view of this preliminary information, you may want to allow yourself to seek professional help with your anxious feelings.
Whatever your score is, I recommend that you make a note of it, and then take the test again after you have read the remainder of the book.
More than anything, I want to wake you from your numbing anxieties about this strange new world, and to give you some rational hope for the future.