The Paranoia Switch: How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior--and How We Can Reclaim Our Courageby Martha Stout
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/p>/i>
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.
According to a 2004 Indiana University study on behavioral and life changes since 9/11, that event caused lasting, underlying anxiety, suspiciousness, and isolation in the United States. Here, popular author and clinician Stout (The Sociopath Next Door) examines the dynamics of that process, beginning with an assessment of how readers are personally affected, including a self-scoring anxiety test. This is followed by an analysis of terrorism and its effects. The author introduces neuropsychological concepts and compares political terrorism with the private terrorism of domestic violence and other traumas. In her view, such actions short-circuit normal brain functioning and trigger pathological individual and collective behavior. She also delves into the politics of fear whereby "fear brokers" exploit negative psychological states in society for their own personal and political goals. Finally, the author briefly considers how individuals can become more resilient and hopeful about the future. Although Stout's ideas are bold, relevant, and appropriately referenced, her tone often seems more political than psychological, especially in the last sections on minimizing the threat of terrorism post-9/11. Nevertheless, she provides a valuable if not totally satisfactory counterpoint to political fear-mongering about terrorism. Recommended for large public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ5/15/07.]
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The Paranoia Switch
How Terror Rewires Our Brains and Reshapes Our Behavior - and How We Can Reclaim Our Courage
By Martha Stout
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Martha Stout
All rights reserved.
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 of mood 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 become established 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 like less 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 us of 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 November 2001 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 the stress 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 the voice 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.
Excerpted from The Paranoia Switch by Martha Stout. Copyright © 2007 Martha Stout. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Martha Stout, PhD. is the author of The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness and The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us.
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This book explains how we got where we are since 9/11/2001. Why we are at each others' throats, divided and fortified against each other, in a classic textbook display of tribalism. One word is the answer: FEAR. If you'd like to know why those who don't agree with you make you SO angry, you should read this book. Is this our choice or were we all manipulated not only into war, but also into tearing the very fabric of our society in our desperation to be SAFE? Martha Stout not only explains how we got here but also shows the pathway to take back our minds and our lives as well as our country.