Viral Violence Hijacked Your Amygdala. Go Get It Back.

Mass violence spreads irrational fear. Here's how to reclaim your brain.

This has been the summer of terrifying violence at public gatherings. A celebratory Saturday night at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando ended with 49 people dead. What began as a peaceful demonstration against the killings of unarmed black men in St. Paul and Baton Rouge ended in the murder of five police officers. Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France, became a target for a terrorist, who mowed down 84 people with an armored truck.

It makes rational sense that irrational fears of crowded places would proliferate. When humans see a violent event, they can’t help but imagine themselves in jeopardy. This is because fear empowers the amygdala, the part of our brain that prefers instinct to logic. Psychologists say this tendency to embrace impulsivity when under stress is natural, but can be tempered. They also say that in the current atmosphere of fear — triggered by terrorism, mass violence, and the constant documentation of both — it needs to be in order for people to avoid being trapped by their own anxieties.

Anne Marie Albano is director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders and a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety and phobic behaviors. She told Inverse that much of the reason why anxiety manifests itself during especially violent times is distance — or rather, the lack thereof. Albano’s example is the September 11 attacks: Research indicates those who were either in lower Manhattan or within viewing distance of the towers were more psychologically affected.

“The closer in proximity to an event, the more likely a person is prone to anxiety or other issues like depression or mental health problems,” Albano says.

But social media has changed how we watch events unfold since 2001. Real-time broadcasting renders geographic distance an almost null concept. Sure, footage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was aired on television, but it was aired within the context of the news. That’s not how horrors unfold any longer. The introduction of Facebook Live has made real immediacy both possible and a tool for victims to document their experience. Philando Castile’s girlfriend uploaded his labored dying breaths for all to see, arguably inciting the rallies and protests that followed. Nice’s horrific truck rampage was caught on camera. Chaos and blood have gone viral.

“They show these things over and over again, and they get replayed again and again,” Albano said. “Media exposure increases a person’s vulnerability. The distance starts breaking down; it’s as if Dallas was next door and Nice was around the corner. Social media breaks down the proximity line.”

Most humans cannot, as it turns out, ignore tragedy. “It stresses you out,” says psychiatrist Charles Figley, who coined the term “compassion fatigue” for this sort of stressful reaction. He suggests that there are two ways humans indirectly suffer from the traumas of others. The first is (predictably) through the sense of loss incurred by the suffering of a loved one. The second — which feels horribly relevant at this historical moment — is facilitated by empathy and the public desire to feel empathy for those who have been unfairly victimized. A generation ago, violence on the other side of the world might not have triggered an empathetic response, but today a bomb in a Middle Eastern cafe no longer sounds distant. Our friends hail from these places and these events take place — as seemingly all events do — in the context of our Facebook feeds and on our phone, which buzz with news alerts. And cue the compassion fatigue.

Why does this happen? Most of it is in your head. Albano explains it like this: “When you’re looking at a screen — whether it’s a cell phone or television — images with lighting stimulate and activate your brain. When you look at highly emotionally charged images — violence, blood, war, crime — you are activating a very specific region of your brain, the amygdala. It’s in the oldest part of our brain evolutionarily, and it’s the center of the flight or fight response.”

Before you roll your eyes at another psychologist invoking flight or fight (the most invokable of responses), consider this: Your brain processes violence before it contextualizes it. “The amygdala sets off a whole series of neural connections that release hormones so you can narrow your focus on the threat and prepare to deal with it,” Albano says. In other words, your body has no idea that the threat isn’t there. It thinks it is, and suddenly, you’re experiencing trauma in a real way.

Briefly anyway.

The cerebral cortex — the reasoning section of your brain — comes to the rescue fairly quickly. “It tells your amygdala to stand down, that it’s okay,” Albano explains. “But when you’re online, youre priming the amygdala to the point where it’s in a constant state of heightened anxiety, especially because when you surf the web, you’re going between written media, videos, and tweets.” The digital life we all lead, in other words, is basically an invitation for a semi-permanent sense of panic and anxiety.

David Rosmarin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard and the director of the Center for Anxiety, says that concerns morph into fear and can become debilitating when people put too much focus on specific instances of violence. “I could recognize fear and live on Xanax,” says Rosmarin, “or I could just know that I’m powerless — but the facts are working for me.”

Rosmarin is right, of course. From a safety perspective, it is statistically irrational to avoid public events. From an enjoyment perspective, however, it’s rational — albeit in a vicious cycle of anxiety kind of way. That sort of pathological avoidance is unlikely to lead to a happy outcome.

“Be normal,” Albano says when asked for a recommendation on dealing with irrational fear. “Live your life like you would. Just enjoy your life.”

Doing that may mean avoiding certain types of content and even walking away from Facebook, hard as that might be. But in a time when it’s very easy to feel as if the world is a violent place, it might be best to realize the ultimate salve for anxiety is to remember, in the grand scheme of things, you’re okay.

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