What your doctor won’t tell you about how Charlie Hebdo terrorism impacts your health.
The stress levels in the world seem to be going through the roof and people are becoming more and more frightened. Here are a few headlines from today’s news:
- Family’s minivan snagged, dragged 16 miles behind semi in Michigan
- Girl, 5, dies after being thrown from bridge; father arrested
- France: Raids kill 3 suspects, including 2 wanted in Charlie Hebdo attack
- U.S. official on terror attacks: ‘This isn’t going to stop’
- A terror suspect who took over a kosher market and killed four hostages was also killed
Most of us weren’t directly impacted by these events, but everyone who watches the news or reads the headlines can be harmed. Most doctors won’t tell you that stressful events that happen to others can impact your own health. One doctor who wants you to understand the connection between fear and health is Lissa Rankin, M.D.
Dr. Rankin is the best-selling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. In her forthcoming book The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage as Medicine for the Body, Mind, and Soul, Rankin offers scientific proof that fear can make you sick. One of the many studies she cites was published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology to determine whether the fear and anxiety the September 11 terrorist attacks left in their wake increased the frequency of sudden death in patients at risk of cardiac arrhythmias. The study found that it did.
More and more people are becoming chronically anxious and phobic. Not only is anxiety very common, it can be debilitating and deadly. Dr. Rankin cites a study published in the British Medical Journal. Researchers followed 1,457 men with phobic anxiety for six years. Among the most anxious men, this study found that heart disease was almost 400% higher among this group of men than among those with low anxiety.
Another study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health followed 40,000 men over a period of two years. They found that the risk of cardiac death to be 600% higher in men who suffered from phobic anxiety. “In a number of studied cases, victims died as a result of their phobias, with fatal heart attacks coming immediately after psychological stress,” Dr. Rankin noted. “Most of them had no previous evidence of heart disease.”
Although most of the studies on fear and heart disease have been conducted on men, there have been a number of studies that Dr. Rankin cites that show that women are impacted by fear and stress as well.
But it isn’t just people who are at risk of heart disease that are impacted by fear. Fear affects us all. In the headlines I read today a handful of people have died and families and friends also experience a tragic loss. However, millions of people who read the headlines will have their fears raised, their stress levels will inch up another notch, and many millions will get sick and die before their time as a result. Terrorists know that the real damage they do is to the larger population who live in fear as a result of their actions.
However, fear doesn’t have to lead to disease and death. It can also be a call to creative action that can help us heal. Dr. Rankin believes that our fears can actually lead us to a better life, rather than to more heart disease, cancer, and other stress-related illnesses. Rachael Naomi Remen, M.D., New York Times best-selling author of Kitchen Table Wisdom wrote the foreword to The Fear Cure. Dr. Remen says, “The Fear Cure is about wrestling with an angel. The angel is called Fear. The way to free yourself is to find the blessing only this angel can give you.”
It’s clear from research that fear, anxiety, stress, and worry can harm our health. But it’s also clear that our fears, if understood and harnessed, can point us in the direction of a healthier and happier life. It requires a change of heart, a change of mind, and a good deal of courage to make the shift from fear as killer, to fear as healer, but Dr. Rankin lovingly and skillfully guides us.
The Fear Cure identifies the Four Fearful Assumptions that lie at the root of all fears—from the sense that we’re alone in the universe to the belief that we can’t handle losing what we love. We learn to shift from these fearful assumptions about life to ones that are more hopeful. Dr. Rankin calls them the Four-Courage-Cultivating Truths. These truths can pave the way not only to our greater physical well-being, but to a profound awakening in our spiritual world.
We can react to terrorist attacks and other fearful events by escaping into alcohol, drugs, distracting media, etc. or we can turn towards the source of the fear and see what it can teach us about ourselves and life. We might think of this as an “Aikido approach to Fear.”
I still remember the first Aikido classes I took. I learned that Aikido was a non-violent martial art that helped us deal with our fears. In all the Aikido moves, the first thing we learned to do was to become aware of the way in which we reacted to fear. Did we flinch, retreat, become aggressive? We then learned to settle ourselves and become more grounded. Finally, we could move toward the fear, rather than retreating and meet it with loving kindness and a healthy resolve to protect ourselves and resolve the negative energy coming our way.
I suspect there will be many more fearful events coming our way in our lives. I believe The Fear Cure is an essential resource for becoming friends with our fear and using it to our advantage. We’ll never defeat terrorism by fighting it. We’ll only defeat it by learning how to understand the fear that it generates and how to dance with this dark angel.