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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.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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. Excerpted from The Paranoia Switch by Martha Stout. Copyright © 2007 by Martha Stout. Published in September 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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