Fear is a universal feeling. Although it’s not pleasant to feel fear, it can save our lives as it triggers a warning reaction, both psychological and physiological, which allows us to react promptly and safe from danger.
Fear is, then, an activating positive emotion. The problem begins when that fear doesn’t leave us and makes us believe that we are constantly in danger. Then it condemns us to live in alert, waiting for an aggression at any moment. The problem begins when we suffer a “derivative fear”. A problem that, according to Zygmunt Bauman, is endemic in our society and could affect us all.
What is derivative fear?
Derivative fear is a kind of “recycled” fear, of a social and cultural nature. “Derivative fear is a steady frame of mind that is best described as the sentiment of being susceptible to danger; a feeling of insecurity (the world is full of dangers that may strike at any time with little or no warning) and vulnerability (in the event of the danger striking, there will be little if any chance of escape or successful defence; the assumption of vulnerability to dangers depends more on a lack of trust in the defense available than on the volume or nature of actual threats)”, in the words of Bauman.
How does derivative fear arise?
Derivative fear arises as a result of past negative experiences, it’s the “secondary effect” of exposure to a danger that we live in our own flesh, we have witnessed or have heard about.
Bauman explains that “Derivative fear is the sediment of a past experience of facing the menace of point blank: a sediment that oulives that encounter and becomes an important factor in shaping human conduct even if there is no longer a direct threat to life or integrity”.
It is the fear that continues to grip us after fear. If we lose someone dear, it’s the residual fear after the loss. If we lose our job, it’s the fear of losing the current job. If we suffer a faint or a panic attack, it’s the fear of going through that experience again.
Derivative fear is established because it’s easily dissociated from consciousness; that is, the feeling of fear remains, although danger disappeared. We dissociate the fear from the factor that caused it.
The anguished experience we lived was so intense that made our imagination flying, making us see dangers everywhere. Thus fear ends up permeating our vision of the world. We begin to think that the world is a hostile and dangerous place.
The long tentacles of derivative fear
“Derivative fear reorients behavior after changing the perception of the world and the expectations that guide behavior, whether there is a threat or not […] A person who has interiorized such a vision of the world that includes insecurity and vulnerability, will routinely resort to responses proper to a point-blank meeting with danger; derivative fear acquires a self-self-propelling capacity”, said Bauman.
People who almost never go out at night, for example, tend to think of the outside world as a dangerous place to avoid. And since during the night the dangers become more terrifying, they prefer to stay safe in their homes. Thus derivative fear creates a vicious circle that feeds itself. Fear drives these people to seclusion, and the more they are secluded and protected, the more frightening the world will be.
If we lose someone dear, the residual fear will lead us to assume overprotective behaviors with the people we still have around us. If we lose a job, derivative fear will cause us to be tense in current employment for fear of making mistakes and being fired again. If we suffer a panic attack, we will adopt a hyper vigilant attitude in which any change will trigger anxiety again. Thus derivative fear self-generates the situations we fear the most.
Those who suffer a derivative fear have lost their self-confidence. They don’t trust in their strength and resources to face the threats, they have developed a kind of learned helplessness. The problem is that living imagining dangers and threats everywhere is not living.
This state of constant alert ends up destroying us, both at a psychological and physical level. When the amygdala detects a situation of danger, real or imagined, activates the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, which secretes the adrenocorticotropic hormone. Almost at the same time the adrenal gland is activated, which releases epinephrine. Both substances generate cortisol, a hormone that increases blood pressure and blood sugar and suppresses the immune system. With that input we have more energy to react, but if we stay in that state for a long time our health will end up suffering and we’ll be continuously on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
We live in a society that feeds derivative fears
Bauman suggests that we live in a society that fuels disproportionate fears. “Most fearsome is the ubiquity of fears: they may leak out of any nook and cranny of our homes and our planet. From dark streets and from brightly lit television screens. From our bedrooms and our kitchens. From our workplaces and from the underground train we take to get there or back. From people we meet and from whom we failed to notice. From something we ingested and from something our bodies get in touch with. From what we call ‘nature’ or from other people […]
“Day in, day out we learn the inventory of dangers is far from complete: new dangers are discovered and announced almost daily and there’s no knowing how many more of them and of what kind have managed to escape our attention getting reaady to strike without warning.”
Liquid fear, as he also called it, slips everywhere and is fed through different channels because “The consumer economy depends on the production of consumers and the consumers that must be produced for consumption of ‘products against fear’ have to be scared and frightened, while hopeful that the dangers they fear so much can be forced to retreat, with the little help paid out of their pocket, of course.”
We can’t forget that fear is a useful tool, not only for multinationals to sell their products but also for the politicians who ask for our vote and even for the State that presents itself as our “protector and saviour”. Fear is capitalized very well because it turns off our rational mind, unleashes a full-fledged emotional hijacking that prevents us from thinking about anything other than getting safe. Through this unhealthy mechanism, those who unleashes fear also offers us a “palliative solution”.
Thus “The fight against fears has become a life-long task, while dangers that trigger these fears have become permanent and inseparable companions of human life”.
What to do? How to escape from that mechanism?
Breaking down derivative fears to live more fully
- Put fears in context. First of all, we must be aware that “Are many more the strikes that continue to be announced as imminent than those that finally hit us”, according to Bauman. That means that society or our imagination produce more frightening situations than those that actually happen. Adopting this perspective allows us assume a psychological distance from what frightens us realizing that the probabilities that is actually occurring are smaller than we think.
- What happened doesn’t have to happen again. There are hard life experiences difficult to overcome. There is no doubt. However, although the derivative fear they generate is understandable, it’s not sustainable. That means the past should be a source of wisdom, resilience and strength to face the future, not a paralyzing excuse that limits our potential.
- Life is a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all. Fleeing from fear is having fear. Our extraordinary ability to project ourselves into the future also makes us fear uncertainty, imagining frightening monsters that haunt us. It’s the human dilemma. To escape this we need to make our this wonderful message of Bauman: “Knowing that this world we live in is fearsome, doesn’t mean that we have to live in fear”. Some dangers exist, we can’t ignore them, but we can’t let them condition our decisions and prevent us from living fully. After all, “Life is a daring adventure or it is nothing at all”, according to Hellen Keller.
Bauman, Z. (2010) Miedo líquido. Barcelona: Editorial Paidós.