When We Panic Without Good Reason


Scared Cat

Do you get scared easily, or find yourself panicking when others aren’t? If you have adequate senses and find that you freak out all the time, don’t be ashamed. For most people, having a reaction to things is normal, and having a gross overreaction is not uncommon at all. There’s science behind nearly all of it. Yay, science!

Mystery Noises

Home Scared

Some areas teem with skunks to raccoons to guys who wear socks with sandals. When hear a rummaging outside my window, I should be able to rationally deduce that it is most likely one of those unhygienic creatures seeking a meal in my trash. And even if it actually is a burglar or Gary Busey gone walkabout again, that should be the thought I have 999 times out of 1,000. But it’s not. In fact, the thought I always have is “Maybe being stabbed won’t be that bad.”

From a creaking floor to a rattled can to some random thump upstairs that’s probably your fat cat falling off the bed, almonst every noise has a rational explanation. Yet we tend to jump to the most irrational reason first. How many times have you legitimately wondered if maybe that noise was some kind of Michael-Myers-esque slasher in the hall closet when in fact it was just the air conditioner kicking on?

That fear of loud noises is called “phonophobia,” and it’s an insidious fear because any sudden loud noise is going to take you by surprise. This is what makes jump scares in horror movies so effective – it’s not a building of dread and atmosphere as much as some idiot poking you from behind when you didn’t see them coming. You have no choice but to be startled by a sudden bang in the house because it’s not the normal flow of things. Your nerves are immediately set on edge, and we feel that creeping panic.

Part of any creature’s survival instinct is to be wary of sudden changes in the world around them. Any wild animal tends to freeze the moment they hear a strange noise and then bolt when they feel threatened. Your brain is just a frightened little bunny when you hear a frying pan fall when there’s no one in the kitchen, and your imagination will fill in the rest for you. Maybe it’s just because you left it precariously on the edge of the counter, or maybe the vampires slipping in through your window are a little clumsy.

Health Scares

Health Concerns

Who hasn’t had that ominous moment when we feel a scratch at the back of the throat and a bit of a sniffle coming on, so we whisk away to WebMD, only to learn, tragically, that we have hyper-syphilis and endometritis of the testicles? That’s especially shocking for ladies. But WebMD is a doctor, right? It’s in the name.

Most of us have little bouts of hypochondria, and that’s normal. It usually just means that you chug orange juice through a beer funnel to get the most Vitamin C you can for a few days. But this habit of looking up your ills online and allowing your fears to spiral out of control has its own name, and it’s cyberchondria.

When you rush off to WebMD because you wake up every morning feeling sad and immediately think you’re manic-depressive, you start a furious chain of events that may end up snowballing into tomfoolery. Lacking the training to properly diagnose yourself and simply going by whatever symptom + disease combo comes up first in a Google search is more likely to stress you out, and when you do go see a physician, it’s also more likely to direct your diagnosis toward what you think you want or need to hear. Maybe you only have a headache, but WebMD said that when combined with leaky nipples, it’s a sign of spinal liquefaction, so you bring up how you kind of do maybe remember having a drippy nipple the other day.

The big issue with this method of self-diagnosis is that you end up believing you have 100 diseases you don’t have and could very well miss one you do have, because we don’t know our liver from grape jelly when it comes to medicine.

The medical profession engenders a lot of mistrust. Google it and you’ll discover hundreds of articles on why you shouldn’t trust doctors, and why you should instead trust Greg, a guy with a blog. Reasons range from outright quackery to the fear that the medical profession is just a money-making scam to the hopelessness of people who haven’t been able to find help. There’s a rich tapestry of potential reasons someone wouldn’t trust a doctor, and even though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust medical science, it seems a lot cheaper to diagnose yourself at home. Also, you’re probably tempted to believe you know yourself better than any doctor. Of course, that’s garbage, and you need only recall every dumb decision you’ve ever made in your life as proof.

Despite the lack of logic, we want to solve our own problems, and without the medical know-how to back it up, we tend to just make it worse in our minds because, you know, we’re ignorant and silly.

Fear Of Chemicals And Additives

Food Concerned

There’s a fairly famous story about dihydrogen monoxide that explains how breathing it in can kill you and all that. The joke, of course, is that dihydrogen monoxide is water, and you’re an unscientific chump if you fall for this scam.

There’s a little more to this joke than scientific illiteracy, though, and that’s processing fluency, a kind of familiarity heuristic. We as people like easy-to-understand, familiar things. So if I give you two plates of food, and one I just call pot roast with veggies and the other is ossobucco and you’ve never heard of that, you’re going to be more likely to feel comfortable with the pot roast, even though they’re essentially the same thing.  Ignore the chefs that are now screaming.

Weird words weird us out, and no words are weirder than the names of chemicals. Water sounds much friendlier than dihydrogen monoxide. Carbon monoxide can kill you, so who knows what sinister mess dihydrogen has up its sleeve. Who wants to risk massive anal scarring from acetylsalicylic acid when you can take an aspirin? Stay away from methylenedioxymethamphetamine, and instead go dancing with Molly.

This is essentially how your brain makes decision-making simpler, and companies use it to dupe you into buying certain products. The easier terms and words are, the more familiar and safe they sound and the less work your brain has to do when trying to decide if you should sprinkle it on your donut. In your own head, you’re convincing yourself you’ve done the right thing.

This brilliantly applies to marketing, especially in the world of holistic, non-GMO, organic, flaccid, no-donkey-punching foods and supplements. Good gawd, no reasonable person would ever want to buy granola bars jam-packed with sodium benzoate, whatever that is. That’s why Granny Goodtime only sells bars made with pure granola, figs, and lung butter. Granny Goodtime wouldn’t trick you with dangerous things like syllables.

Baader-Meinhof Phenomena

Panic No Reason

Also known as the frequency effect, the Baader-Meinhof phenomena is basically stumbling upon some obscure name or info for the first time, then running into it again fairly soon thereafter. Your mind immediately makes this significant. How could you have lived your whole life never knowing Scott Baio’s middle name is Grundle, and then, upon discovering it, run across a farmer’s market with an entire booth dedicated to handwritten Grundle Baio fanfic? That must be fate or something, right? That’s the Universe telling you something!

It’s not. The Universe doesn’t care what order you learn facts in, or how often you run across the same fact more than once. It’s called a coincidence, and the Universe is so up to its crotch in coincidences that you’d choke on a biscuit if you could appreciate even a fraction of them. However, the human mind doesn’t cotton to coincidence being coincidental. We demand patterns in chaos, so a coincidence becomes a conspiracy with almost no prompting whatsoever.

Suppose you walk your dog every day after dinner. One day, you walk through the alley and cut a wicked fart. It wafts up to a neighbor’s window and the dude inside smells burrito and gas. The next day, you walk your dog again and just happen to fart in the same place. The dude inside, at the exact same time, smells the exact same fart and is suddenly convinced that there’s a fart-spiracy afoot. Why does his apartment stink like a burrito fart at the same time each day, when he’s eaten neither a burrito nor farted in months? What could it mean? Is the government trying some kind of nerve gas experiment? This example was abhorrent, but it’s mostly effective. One man’s unexplained phenomena is another man’s leftover Taco Bell.

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