I saw the new Batman movie over the weekend, and on the way into the movie theater, I saw police officers standing at the entrance. They were a reminder that it was not business as usual, and their presence no doubt raised the collective blood pressure and heart rate of those who overcame their fear and braved their way to the theater.
Fight or flight, or an outpouring of stress hormones, is intended as a life-saving response to imminent danger. There is a moment when most animals freeze, and then are stirred by their hormones (epinephrine, norepinephrine, followed by cortisol) to action; either to attack the danger, or to flee from it. Fight or flight served the survivors of the Colorado shootings well.
But it is not productive for those of us who watch the news on TV, who have a strong emotional response of empathy for the victims followed by fear for ourselves. We are attaching ourselves voyeuristically to the news and over-personalizing it. We become afraid to go to the movies, though the statistical risk of anything happening to us remains extremely low.
Fear is not only very powerful, emanating from a deep emotional center of our brain known as the amygdala, it is also highly contagious, spreading among us and to our children as we discuss movie theaters as if they are now suddenly a real risk. The news media, including the Internet and 24 hour cable news coverage, stokes these fears until they deteriorate into a cycle of worry.