Why Fear Backfires

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Fear Eyes (Blog post)

Fear is one of our most powerful emotions, vital for keeping us safe in a dangerous world, so it can be very effective in getting us to act.  But not always….

We’re all familiar with government anti-smoking campaigns – full of attempts to make smokers so afraid of the negative health effects, that they quit.  But recent research* (and £millions of government money spent in vain, it seems) has confirmed that fear-based strategies can make people smoke more, not less.  Remind people of their mortality, and they turn for comfort to the cigarettes.

The same effect comes into play around stress.  Frequent reminders of the potential health risks of too much stress not only draws attention to the bad stresses (so we notice even more of them); it makes people more likely to engage in unhelpful or unhealthy avoidance strategies. 

In the American Psychological Association’s 2014 stress survey, the top strategies for managing stress were watching TV or movies for more than 2h a day, surfing the internet, taking a nap, eating, and drinking alcohol – none of which do anything at all to resolve the stress.

So what can you do instead? 

Recognise that there’s much more to stress than the health risks, because not all stresses are bad.  Often, our biggest challenges are those which give life most meaning - being a parent can be pretty stressful, but I doubt you'd give up your kids for an easier life.  So how do your stresses link to your values and purpose?  To what really matters....

If you start to feel overwhelmed, tease apart the stresses, and look at them individually.  Identifying 1-3 stresses on which you can take action (even if they’re not the biggest ones), keeps your creative mind engaged, gives you back the feeling of some control, and keeping the overwhelm at bay.

And recognise your avoidance strategies – the mid-afternoon rush for the chocolate stash, the reliance on caffeine to function normally, reaching for the TV remote or the wine bottle as soon as you walk through the door at home.  Taking a few moments to evaluate makes the choice conscious rather than habit, and helps you to make better ones.

And keep recognising what’s working as well as what’s not.  What challenges are you rising to?  What stresses are promoting your growth, learning, and collaborations with others? 


* When death makes you smoke: A terror management perspective on the effectiveness of cigarette on-pack warnings.  Hansen, J., Winzeler, S., & Topolinski, S. (2010).

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