I recently stopped checking my Facebook newsfeed because I got tired of reading about people's fears. Facebook is a great tool for examining collective behavior, and since I’ve lived on the East Coast, West Coast and in the Midwest, my Facebook world may be wider than many people’s. Still, the consistency was striking: Everyone wanted to talk about the threats they perceive all around them.

Since the November election, and well into 2017, the threats described on Facebook by friends, former colleagues and acquaintances have been political, with many of my Facebook connections describing issues that they felt required urgent action. Some of these people were calm and reasonable, but another group was posting status updates and commenting too, and this group was neither calm, nor reasonable.   

They urgently demanded that I get as angry and fearful as them, and if I didn’t, I was “asleep,” or “not paying attention,” or “lazy.” The demand that I abandon my peace and become fearful and enraged is not a tempting one, but what if these people are right? Maybe I’m underestimating the threats around me.   

How do we tell the difference between a real threat that requires action, and a perceived threat that’s a product of unstable emotions or confusion? How do we know if we’re giving the threat too much weight, or not enough? And how do you listen to other people’s fears and acknowledge them without getting swallowed up in them?

There’s actually some data about this, including how often, and how deeply, we engage with this content. According to a 2013 IDC report for Facebook, typical Facebook consumers with smartphones check their accounts around 14 times a day. The Pew Research Center says users are highly engaged; 65 percent frequently share, post or comment. Anecdotally, we know many users scroll through their feeds first thing in the morning (before they get out of bed), throughout the day, and before falling asleep at night. But how do they react to the news they perceive as threatening, or dangerous, and why?

Your Brain On Threats

The way we respond to threats is shaped both by social conditioning, or the context in which we’re raised as children, and innate biology. And if we weren’t raised in a way that gave us a sense of structure and safety, or we didn’t build those systems in adulthood, we’re going to have a tough time facing danger. When a psychological, or theoretical, threat emerges and we don’t have those safety systems in place, it triggers the parts of the brain that respond to physical threat, said David Spiegel, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, and director of the Center on Stress and Health.  

“Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, you secrete adrenaline, you secrete cortisol...the systems we evolved to protect ourselves physically under threat start to get mobilized,” he told me. “That is wear and tear, because you’re not just quietly thinking about things, you’re starting to react as though it were a physical threat.”  

The threats people post about on Facebook are rarely physical, such as severe illness or direct attack, and mostly psychological stemming from politics. So it’s the way we see, or interpret things, that determines how we respond. In a study published in PloS ONE by a team from the California Institute of Technology and University of London, researchers took previous investigations a little further by testing a broader set of threats, including natural disasters and threats that are psychological.

They had a group of 85 participants look at 29 different threatening scenarios, and then choose a description of different defensive behaviors that described how they would react. Researchers were able to successfully predict each scenario’s most common reaction, the study reported, with the degree of danger being the most important factor.

“A global pattern existed, such that imminent threats tended to be approached [or reacted to]. For example, threats that were high in immediacy, dangerousness...ability to harm, or proximity were positively correlated with responses that required approaching the source of the threat, like attacking, screaming, or threatening to do so,” the study reads. “On the other hand, threatening scenarios that were escapable, ambiguous or had a hiding place available” were less likely to provoke attacking or screaming.

So the greater and clearer the imminent threat, the more likely subjects would react in an aggressive way. If the threat was vague or seemed far away, people might choose to hide. We could argue that the person who expresses urgent fear or anger on Facebook is perceiving a greater and clearer threat. Or, the person who responds calmly to the danger may just see a potential escape or feel the danger is far away.

How Great Is The Threat, Really?

Except here’s one hitch — how do we personally define a “threat” and what happens when our wiring gets crossed, and we either overvalue, or undervalue, threats in our lives? From an anthropological standpoint, people from every culture in the world sometimes get it wrong, and with tragic results.

Camille Frazier, a doctoral student in sociocultural anthropology at UCLA, studies the changing food system in Bangalore (officially known as Bengaluru), the IT capital of India. Over the last 30 years or so, she says, Bangalore has changed drastically from a sleepy city into a booming metropolis. Farmers say they have an increasingly difficult time making ends meet, bodies of water are polluted, and space has become a premium, particularly on what’s known as the peri-urban fringe, or just on the fringes of the city.

“The tension between city and countryside has been a part of Indian culture for a very long time,” she told me. “But people are arguing that agriculture itself has become a lot less secure, and there’s more Indian [farmer] suicide….the way people talk about it in Bangalore, they imagine it getting worse.”    

The farmers certainly aren’t killing themselves over nothing. Frazier pointed me to reports by a local journalist, Palagummi Sainath, who has covered the issue extensively throughout the whole country.

To the north of Bangalore is the state of Maharashtra, where 60,750 farmers have committed suicide since 1995. By 2013, “all the Big 5 states in farm suicides have recorded declines … relative to the previous year,” he writes. But then there was an upsurge in suicides two years later in 2015. The numbers, whether falling or surging, are extremely high in either case, he says. But why?

“Farmers have been killing themselves in years when the crop has been excellent. And in seasons when it has failed. They have taken their own lives in large numbers in very different years. When it rains they lose out, when it doesn’t they lose out worse. There have been awful suicide numbers in some good monsoon years. And so too, in years of drought, which can make things more terrible,” he writes.

In Bangalore, Frazier says, the city has developed in ways that are difficult to both control or trace. Did farmers here who committed suicide overvalue the threat of debt, and, lacking an enemy to attack or a hiding place, simply attack themselves? What is clear is that they saw an imminent and real danger, and they reacted in the most permanent way possible.

Issues of threats are vastly complicated; sometimes we undervalue them and ignore them, or we take them seriously, but it’s too late.

Systems that are supposed to protect the vulnerable often fail. Take the issue of domestic violence in America. Husbands are some of the most dangerous people women in this country face, yet every day, women decide to stay in abusive relationships.

What’s so startling in the case of abuse victims is that “between 50 percent and 75 percent of domestic violence homicides happen at the point of separation or after [the victim] has already left [her abuser],” Cynthia Hill, director of a documentary on the subject called “Private Violence,” told The Guardian. These women see the threat and leave, and still pay the ultimate price.

The cases of the farmers and the domestic violence victims are extreme, but a threat that one person shows to be empirically justified may be discounted by another. Russia recently decriminalized a first offense of domestic violence if the victim doesn’t require hospital treatment. Some activists say men are already taking the move as permission to step up violence against women, who appear to need much better protection in the country: “One study in 2013 found more than 80 percent of violent crimes against women in Russia are committed by spouses or intimate partners,” Human Rights Watch reported.

The people who posted on my Facebook feed who were the most fearful and angriest believe the political issues we face rise to the level of what I just described with the farmer suicides and the domestic violence victims: They see imminent, and clear, danger.

Sometimes our worst fears really do come to fruition, so we can’t dismiss every clarion call. We have all the evidence in the world to show that tragedy happens, even in the most mundane American life. So what do we do when we know that a crisis really could be looming?  

There’s one more way of responding to threats, and it’s practiced by a miraculous few in this world who sense no danger, and express no fear at all.   

Falling Asleep In Public

I recently flew out of state for a friend’s wedding. While cruising at an altitude of around 30,000 feet, I picked up American Airlines’ magazine, American Way, and came across an essay by the novelist Elizabeth McCracken about her strange ability to fall asleep anywhere, whether at a posh concert hall or on a bus.

“It isn’t that I want to fall asleep,” she writes, “it’s just that I’m happy to be wherever I am. I feel comforted and cheery, and then — no matter how interesting the aria or the passing countryside — I realize that nothing, nothing in the world will feel better than drifting away, shoulder to shoulder with my fellow audience members, my fellow travelers. I trust them. They will watch. They will let me sleep.”

This (non-fiction) essay struck me as fantastical. I read it while flying on a plane, which is statistically much safer than driving, but when something goes wrong, it’s catastrophic. So should I be worried? Am I safe, buckled into my seat 30,000 feet in the air? What about when I land, and have to drive my rental car for which I did not purchase additional insurance at more than $20 per day? And let’s not forget the matter of bed bugs in hotel rooms. The critters are a global problem, and love to hitch onto suitcases and head home with their hosts. And if they do make a new home in yours, they can cause real psychological trauma to their victims, not to mention thousands in extermination costs.

When you consider all the potential threats in this world, and all the ways we can respond to them, it’s understandable that some people lack the emotional strength to face them, and I also sympathize with those who become scared, or even enraged.

I don’t propose that we snooze on the bus because we believe strangers will enfold us in their arms and protect us. I appreciate McCracken’s trust and ease in the world, but find it misplaced. She admits that in many potentially threatening environments, she is, literally, asleep.

In the case of Facebook, I decided I won’t shut down my account completely because I don’t want to become ignorant of the things the people in my extended network fear — that, to me, feels like falling asleep. But I’m determined not to engage too deeply, particularly in matters over which I have no control. I’m also going to set judicious limits on time: I won’t read it before bed, or for god’s sake, first thing in the morning. The birds can wake me up.

Facebook itself and the negativity it often communicates is itself a threat to my peace of mind, but I don’t need to give it any more weight, or less, than what it deserves. And the same goes for all the other potential threats out there in this beautiful, yet dangerous, world.    

The key to facing them may lie in calibrated control — let go of the things that are far above your head, and become active in areas that are within your sphere of influence. But have the humility to acknowledge that your wires get crossed too, and you may get confused about which is which.