All of Us

The Therapeutic Effect of Overcoming Chronic Fear

by Mike Critelli

We live in an era of excessive fear. Economic challenges, political divisions, and an obsessive media focus on everything that could possibly go wrong, are contributing to this. The pandemic, moreover, amplified this environment of fear.

Chronic fear, in particular, is extremely unhealthy.The research on its physical and mental health effects are undisputed and well-documented. 

  • Fear weakens our immune system.  

  • It leads to accelerated aging.

  • It can cause damage to certain parts of the brain and make us even more fearful.

  • It triggers fatigue, clinical depression, and PTSD.

Fear can be beneficial when it minimizes our exposure to real risks. But we are also subject to triggers from non-existent and exaggerated risks.

What can we do to reduce the likelihood that we will be gripped with chronic, unjustified, long-term fear? For one, thinking critically is an under-appreciated antidote. 

We can apply a certain critical-thinking orientation to fear-inducing stimuli. And internalizing the following about the world are foundational to this.

We are not alone in being confronted with any problem

We are almost never the first people to have encountered a particular, potentially fear-inducing problem. Support and special interest advocacy groups exist for virtually every challenge.

Solutions are almost always available

One wonderful attribute of Internet searches is that someone somewhere has pursued solutions to almost every imaginable issue. Potential solutions are much broader than we can imagine. Multiple preventive or damage-reducing interventions can make problems go away or, at least, to be more manageable.

We can calculate the probabilities of an event occurring

Entertainment and news media report on fear-inducing events because they attract more readers, viewers and listeners. Politicians focus on such events to persuade us to support whatever solution they are peddling. Both cause us to believe that adverse events are more probable than is the case.

While some individuals are at constant risk of danger from crime, a high-risk job, or death from military conflict, the rest of us live daily in low-risk environments.

In recent times, we are exposed to dire predictions about extreme weather-related events, which, despite the reality of climate change, have a very low probability of affecting us. Hurricane Ian was a devastating storm that took many lives and destroyed property worth billions of dollars because of storm surges, but it was only the second hurricane since 1700 to hit Collier County, FL with massive storm surges.

In 2001, I chaired a Mailing Industry CEO Council when less than 20 pieces of anthrax-laced mail were delivered over a one-month period. The public was frightened because of over-reporting by the media, but we reminded Americans that 20 billion pieces were delivered over that month that did not contain anthrax. The odds of anthrax affecting individuals during the height of the crisis was 1 in a billion.

When people are consumed with fear, they often exhibit common biases that make them believe a bad event is more probable than it is. Recency (something that happened recently has more impact), vividness (an extremely low probability airplane crash causes us to overestimate airplane crash risks), and immediacy (something that happened to a loved one) alter perceptions.

We also are afraid of threats from people we do not know or understand. After 9/11, the fear of terrorist actions by Americans of Arab descent was exaggerated and irrational. 

We also must withhold judgment on negative events until they are investigated by authorities. The recent murder of a successful entrepreneur on a San Francisco street was reported initially as a random killing. This was believable because San Francisco has become more dangerous. We soon learned, however, that the alleged killer and the victim not only knew each other, but that the killing was likely precipitated by a romantic conflict. Amber alerts may cause parents to fear random kidnappings, but almost all Amber alerts are actually triggered by non-custodial situations.

Even authoritative sources make incorrect predictions

Sometimes, public authorities will deliberately or inadvertently make mistaken predictions or assessments. One unfortunate consequence of the pronouncements about the risks of the SARS Cov-2 virus is that public health authorities opted to convey a higher degree of certainty than the facts warranted, probably because they believed that conveying a greater risk would result in better containment. They had incomplete knowledge about this novel virus and new variants appeared. Unfortunately, their imprecise and inaccurate communications often stoked fears that, for most people, were unwarranted. Certain topics are incapable of certainty, even if the tone of public messaging conveys otherwise.

Threats are not as certain as they might appear

Fifteen months ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Many experts predicted that the invasion would be successful within a few weeks and that Russia would easily prevail because of the Russians’ apparent advantages in manpower and weaponry. 

They were wrong. They underestimated Ukraine’s resilience, resourcefulness, and external support, and ignored Russia’s vulnerabilities. 

We similarly overestimated the power of the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The Soviets withdrew after a humiliating and exhausting struggle in 1987,  just as we withdrew 33 years later. 

Many situations in our own lives have a similar dynamic. Seemingly powerful people and institutions are more vulnerable than we realize.

Do not fear failure

Many of us fear failure in anything we do.  But failure is embedded in every life pursuit. The greatest athletes and entertainers experience failure on their way to success. Thomas Edison redefined failed experiments as experiments in learning what did not work on the way to learning what did. Those who never fail will be fragile and brittle when failure inevitably happens. 

Avoid fear-inducing, threatening people.

As sensible as this sounds, too many people spend too much time in the grip of those who, either deliberately or unintentionally, induce fear in them. Avoid fear-inducing media or social network sites. Disregard the lurid headlines in so-called news stories. By definition, a negative event is “news” because it is not the norm. We must build positive support systems and wean ourselves from negative, destructive people. 


We cannot eliminate fear-inducing stimuli from our lives, but we can build up our ability to cope with them. It does not happen overnight, but believing that can bring fear under control by building our critical thinking capability is health-promoting.