Fight, Flight, or Forfeit: What Happened to Fear

Why nobody's scared anymore.

Fight, Flight, or Forfeit: What Happened to Fear
Photo by Ahmed Galal on UnsplashPhoto

In 1960, a psychologist named Joseph Wolpe treated a teen girl with car phobia by shoving her into his vehicle and driving her around town for an entire afternoon while she screamed and cried.

By the end, she was completely calm.

Wolpe declared her cured.

His method became known as implosion therapy. If you flood someone with stimulus, you exhaust their fear response. They no longer react to the threat. So therapists began coercing their patients to confront their fears, locking claustrophobics in closets and dragging agoraphobes to crowded shopping centers. It worked, except when it didn't. When it didn't, it caused severe panic attacks and lifelong trauma.

Implosion therapy is a more radical form of exposure therapy, where patients build up tolerance to their fears over time. It's not used much anymore. Instead of throwing someone in a dark closet, therapists are more likely to guide patients through exercises where they imagine fears or relive past trauma.

Now let's jump ahead to 2024, where our leaders are all telling us the best way to deal with a threat is to normalize it.

These days, everyone probably feels like that girl in the car. We've been forced to endure terrors and horrors we never imagined. Worse than that, we've also felt more betrayed, abandoned, and deceived than we ever thought possible. We're burned out on every conceivable level.

There's a weird vibe going around. It feels like you can't scare anyone. You can't shock them. You can't horrify them. We've all seen the memes where aliens land, or the devil shows up, and nobody cares.

They've got a lot going on.

Like almost everything, self-help culture discovered exposure therapy and began twisting it to their own ends. Suddenly you could cure anyone's anxiety or self-doubt simply by forcing them into extreme circumstances or making them extremely uncomfortable. This played right into the hands of bullies and abusers, who could use it to justify all kinds of heinous stuff.

The answer to bullying was more bullying.

Make people less sensitive.

And so on...

It feels like the entire world is trying to treat valid fears and concerns the same way therapists used to treat phobias, with implosion therapy. Exposure is becoming the default stance of our politicians and officials. They don't want to solve our problems. They don't want to eliminate threats. They want to eliminate our fears, no matter how valid they are. They think the best way to do that is to force repeated exposure on us.

Implosion therapy shows us that someone can go from an intense fear response to almost nothing in just a few hours.

There's just one problem.

You can exhaust someone's fear response even when the threat remains very real. You can become used to all the death and suffering, just like you can overcome your phobias. Instead of fight or flight...

They forfeit.

Because people don't feel scared anymore, they don't know what to do with their lack of fear. So they just go back to normal, no matter how much they secretly hate that normal or want it to change. They believe that if they're not scared of something, there's no reason to avoid it.

I've even felt it a little in myself. I'm not "scared" of diseases the way I was a couple of years ago, even if I'm still taking all the precautions. I'm not scared of climate disasters after an F3 tornado touched down a few blocks from my house, and I found myself a few days later scrolling my own doom. Spending a night in an ER with a post-Covid infection probably burned out the last of my fear response. There's nothing left. I know worse things can happen to me, but I feel like I've been sufficiently exposed to my worst fears.

I've been imploded. How about you?

Fortunately, we have this thing called logic.

Those of us in the neurodiverse camp don't seem to need a fight-or-flight response to guide our actions. We don't need to feel shock or horror to know that something's deeply wrong.

It's a strength.

Unfortunately, the majority of the public needs an emotion to motivate them to action. They've been led to believe that their fear of diseases and climate change is an anxiety that has to be dealt with, not something that deserves attention. So they're more than happy to burn out their own fear response and move into the forfeit stage, where they simply stop reacting at all to warnings or alarms of any kind about...anything.

That's yet another reason why more infections, more disasters, more wars, more pandemics, and more fascist dictators aren't likely to wake up anyone. It's just going to make them numb.

The more people confront the realities of pandemics, endless conflict, and climate collapse, the more burned out their fear response gets. It's the opposite of what needs to happen. We need more people to fight.

Instead, they're forfeiting.

This paradox drives optimists and minimizers to blame doomers and fearmongers for the widespread apathy and indifference to the destruction we bear witness to every day now. If that were true, you'd think they would be trying to find a way to reignite people's normal fear response. You'd think spending a few weeks in la la land would bring everyone back down to earth.

That's not happening.

It's not healthy or productive to respond to actual threats by forfeiting, and then pretending the problem doesn't exist or that we have 30 years to fix things. We don't. We need a new strategy.

Here's what worked for me:

I spent the better part of last year trying to convince my spouse to homeschool our daughter. For months, I talked about how scared I was that she was going to develop brain damage from Covid.

Finally, my fear response gave out.

I leveled with him.

I told him there was no point in being scared of Covid infections. If she caught Covid enough times, then the worst would happen.

It was a certainty.

I explained all of this deadpan, without emotion.

It worked.

The minute I describe all this, I know it won't work on everyone. Maybe it won't even work on most people. But it'll probably work on someone. If it does, it's worth a shot. (And I'm also out of ideas right now.)

We live in a post-fear world. There's no point in being scared of anything anymore. I don't think it's possible. We've reached the end of emergency. It's incredibly hard to get anyone to take anything seriously anymore. It's the defining element of dystopian novels and films, that everything feels horrible but nobody can muster enough energy to fight back.

They just muddle through.

We're walking straight into another pandemic, and we're walking straight into another fascist presidency. Even I don't feel the same sense of dread about either of these things, even though I should. What's left is a purely logical realization about the consequences of our actions.

I'm not scared of having an openly fascist president, but I know I don't want one. I'm not scared of getting bird flu, but I know I don't want it. I'm not scared of the climate collapsing, but I know I don't want it.

That's what guides me.

Fear works as a placeholder. It's an instinct that operates when you can't truly envision the consequences of an action. Once you've moved past fear, you have two choices. Address it, or ignore it.

Our politicians and corporate media work overtime to keep people in that post-fear stage, ignoring and normalizing threats.

The point of overcoming your fears isn't to ignore them.

It's to do something about them.

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