What scares people most

Why fear makes so many people sick today

It seems paradoxical: We live in prosperity - we mostly only know war and other catastrophes from the news. At the same time, fears and insecurity shape the way many people feel about life. The psychoanalyst Wolfgang Schmidbauer explains why this happens

GEO KNOWLEDGE: Dr. Schmidbauer, when do fears become so strong that you should consult a specialist?

WOLFGANG SCHMIDBAUER: There are undoubtedly a multitude of sensible fears: If I finish high school and am afraid of choosing the wrong subject, then it is a fear that relates to a real problem. It makes you active, stimulates you to inform yourself and to make a well-considered decision. I don't want to take this fear away from anyone. Fear always becomes pathological when it causes unpleasant physical symptoms: often those that are not immediately recognizable that fear is the trigger.

What are the most common symptoms?

First and foremost are oppression of the heart: the fear of suffering a heart attack. The person concerned goes to the clinic - and receives the result that he could live 100 years with his heart. If the symptoms persist, he is advised to see a psychotherapist. One then speaks of a "somatized fear". This can also manifest itself in sleep disorders, dizziness, tinnitus, breathing disorders or a lump in the throat. The second major reason patients start psychotherapy is a social phobia. So if someone comes and says, "I'm unhappy and alone, all other people have partners and children, except me - what went wrong in my life?" Then it often turns out that this person withdraws socially in the event of the smallest offense, no longer deals with others. His social life is impoverished and it often ends with depression.

You experience that people's fears increase. Why is that?

Never before have so many people had so much to lose as they do today: their security, their prosperity, their future opportunities. We go to preventive medical checkups, which are supposed to discover dangers as early as possible, of which we have no idea. We listen to experts who alert us to risks that we normally don't even think about. We are insured against everything from losing your home to losing your dentures. But none of this makes us happy or fear-free, it just makes us realize what can happen.

That sounds a bit like whining on a high level.

I do not think so. In the last few decades the uncertainties and the fears of wrong decisions have increased enormously. This has to do with the abundance of choices in an individualized society. Whether it is about finding the right partner or considering your own path in life: We are faced with a vast number of options. Every decision can be a mistake, one small, the other large. But what all these considerations have in common is the feeling of insecurity. It used to be different: the sons of farmers became farmers and those of blacksmiths became blacksmiths, that was mapped out. Back then, a young person had few choices and therefore little fear of making the wrong decision. In this respect, he also had to deal with fewer fears mentally.

So everything was better in the past?

Certainly not. But in the globalized world, fears are increasing simply because they are a biological reaction to confusion and overstimulation. And there are undoubtedly more and more of both. Take the professional situation of young people: I never had to apply in my career, I have never had the experience of sending 20 applications and not even receiving an answer. The shortening of high school and study times alone shows how much more powerful the fear has become of falling by the wayside in international competition. Many young people feel that they cannot simply repeat their parents' careers. And parents too suspect this and can no longer treat their offspring with the confidence that strengthens the children's ego.

But isn't it also the case that many paths are open to young people today - which bring a feeling of freedom with them?

There certainly is. But I often watch young people turn away from the world of their parents. Those who do not leave the house anymore, who have headaches and insomnia. Who want to be left alone. Who become hermits in their youth room, in search of security and manageability. Those who fear reality and flee into electronically controlled virtual worlds that give them a pseudo-autonomy. However, this does not allow you to practice coping with fear.

What social dangers does the increase in anxiety disorders bring with it?

The more realistic the reasons for looking to the future with skepticism, the greater the attraction of people who help deny fears, who show ruthless strength and confidence - for example, motivational speakers who make their customers believe they can achieve anything if they can just wanting it strong enough. But they can also be representatives of radical parties who propagate an end to fears if, for example, Muslims are no longer allowed into the country. In politics in particular, defending against fear through hate propaganda, but also through the production of false confidence, is more threatening than the fears themselves.

Curious? You can read the entire interview in GEO WISSEN No. 63 "Strategies against Burnout". You can easily order the magazine here in the GEO shop.