Sharks, bombs, burglars all in a day's worry

By Sam Eichblatt

Forget the Cuban missile crisis or the Creature from the Black Lagoon, modern life has thrown up a range of contemporary bogeymen and irrational fears. Sam Eichblatt investigates five common but statistically unlikely fears of dying.

SHARK ATTACK

Steven Spielberg is to blame. By introducing the first summer blockbuster to the world, in the form of an ode to the terror of a predatory monster lurking beneath the waves of a breezy seaside town, he not only ruined summer for me, but for millions of other people around the world.

It's a cliche because it's true: the arrival of Jaws in my life left me dry-mouthed with a fear I've never completely conquered.

I'm a good swimmer, but going out of my depth in the sea never fails to induce a sense of panic.

Deep sea equals the unknown, water equals not being able to breathe, which equals claustrophobia - add a big fish with an overbite to the mix, and that's a heady combination of Freudian neuroses to work through.

I've always thought there was something deep-seated and primeval about fearing sharks. Humans are out of our element in the water, after all.

The Department of Conservation's shark expert, Clinton Duffy, partially agrees.

"We have no large predatory land mammals in New Zealand, so we're not used to that. As far as great whites go, you need to be just as cautious as you would of a bear or lion. But on land, you have some measure of superiority, when you're in the water it's an alien element."

New Zealand has one of the lowest incidences of shark attacks in the world, even though it's a hotspot for great whites, which are Duffy's area of research.

DoC records on average two incidents a year where swimmers are injured, and only one fatality since 2000. "It's not irrational to fear them," he says. "You can't imagine what it's like seeing a great white in the flesh. You can't get an idea of their size and power from photos. If they wanted to eat people, they'd have no problem."

Great whites are concentrated around seal colonies in the South Island and the Auckland Harbour in summer. "Given the amount of people in the water, it's pretty obvious great whites can make the distinction between humans and their normal prey," says Duffy. "If they were as dangerous as the shark in Jaws, paua divers would have a very short lifespan.

"At least, that's what I tell myself when I get in the water these days. I'm not a shark hugger, but I've got a healthy respect for them."

Oceana, the non-profit ocean conservation group, has calculated that worldwide, taking into account only people who visit beaches, your chance of being attacked by a shark is one in 11.5 million. Your chance of actually being killed by a shark is less than one in 264 million.

FLYING

"I've tried everything to get over it," says Derrick Cowan, a 33-year-old designer who has lived in Asia, Europe and America and often travels for work.

"Drinking, herbal medication - nothing helps, so now I just sit it out. But it's torture."

Studies on human psychology and perceptions of risk by the American Association of Consumer Research have found that when we have control of something, we're generally less afraid. When we're not in control, we're inclined to get antsy.

That explains, in part, why we don't fear driving when there are about 400 road deaths a year in New Zealand, yet the spectre of a plane crash looms much larger, causing anxiety for a large number of travellers.

"The way I see it, it might actually be totally rational," says Cowan.

"It's not natural to be in a plane. There's no halfway in a plane crash, like there is in a car accident where you might be hit but survive, you're almost definitely going to die."

There's also the "dread" factor. Plane crashes capture the imagination in a way that, say, heart disease doesn't. Encouraged by the media, people can all too easily imagine free-falling through empty space to a fiery death.

Modern-day tragedies like the September 11 attacks, which lead the charts for highest death toll at 2996, haven't helped - even though the majority of victims were on the ground, rather than in the planes.

Researchers report that people are inclined to fear flying more depending on their experiences (a particularly turbulent flight, maybe) and life circumstances - for example, if they have young children at the time.

When it comes to the stats there are varying interpretations. The most common is that air travel is the safest form of transportation, based on a "fatality per mile" basis: six times safer than travelling by car, twice as safe as rail. Naturally, this is the one quoted by airlines.

However, measured by the amount of fatalities per person transported, buses are safest. The only transportation that results in more deaths than planes are bicycles and motorbikes. This is the stat used by the insurance industry.

The picture changes again if you calculate the risk by billion kilometres travelled - in this case, cars are the most lethal.

TERRORISM

"I was working in London during 9/11, and for weeks afterwards the sandwich boards outside shops had images of the planes exploding or people falling from the World Trade Centre. I felt sick, like my heart was in my throat all the time. It was as if the end of the world had started," says Neil Walker, a 39-year-old sales rep from Auckland.

When the London suicide bombings happened in July 2005, he found himself poring obsessively over the news stories.

When in London he took the Piccadilly Line every morning and worked in the same building as the Australian survivor Gill Hicks.

"Since then, I've had problems with public transport, especially in big cities. I've had panic attacks and used to have to smoke two or three cigarettes before I caught a train," he says.

"In stations or crowds my adrenalin races and I get a heightened sensitivity. Everything seems too loud and too fast. Public spaces seem exposed and unpredictable. Unattended luggage is also something that sets me off.

"I can function, but I'm really annoying to travel with."

Aside from the immediate human cost, the lasting damage caused by 9/11 is the scar on our collective conscious. Just as the death of one person - such as Princess Diana - can affect millions of people, a cataclysmic event such as the 9/11 attacks takes on a greater significance.

However, global statistics on terrorism reveal it to be a massive, tragic historical anomaly, a plan that by all rights should have failed, and a giant spike in death by terrorism that dwarfs that of every other country during this time period.

The first Human Security Report, published by Oxford University Press in 2005, noted a decline in wars, genocide and human rights abuse over the previous decade, and the updated 2008 report suggests this trend has been maintained.

As American research scientists Clark R Chapman and Alan W Harris noted in their assessment of hazard perception, it's statistically more likely you will be killed by a meteor than a terrorist attack.

The intense focus - again, by the media - on terrorism is responsible for whipping up public hysteria, ironically furthering the precise goals of terrorist groups themselves.

However, unsurprisingly, potential terrorist threats have not had a huge impact on the New Zealand public at large. We're far from the international flashpoints and local terrorist activity has been small potatoes in comparison to, say, the Irish Troubles, which lasted almost 40 years.

Aside from the Rainbow Warrior bombing, which is often described as our only terrorist event but could be more accurately defined as an act of sabotage (it was not designed to generate public fear or cause civilian casualties), the Islamist-led Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 were as close as we got to real trouble.

But New Zealanders do tend to travel a lot. Flight Centre's James Brooker says the knock-on effect has been to change many travellers' itineraries; instead of following the traditional route to London via Los Angeles, many opt for flights through Asia to avoid tedious hours spent queuing for the heightened Nineteen Eighty Four-style American visitor-vetting process.

STRANGER CRIME AND HOME INVASION

Sarah Mitford, a 31-year-old journalist and mother of one from central Auckland, is terrified of burglars. She wakes every morning between 4am and 6am, and plays out home invasion scenarios in her head.

"I read somewhere that most rapes and murders occur between those times, and I can't get that out of my mind. I try not to keep up with the news because it freaks me out even more.

"With all the drug problems these days, it won't just be your house being robbed, it's a home invasion and they're likely to murder you as well."

She admits that part of it is psychological.

"I'm a mother and in full protective mode. After two miscarriages recently I've become more neurotic. I just want to hold on to what I have.

"There's definitely an element of post-traumatic stress to it as well, though it is also something I've always been scared of. I wouldn't swim in deep water either - I think that's related to the fear of burglars. It's the unknown, the fact you can't know what's there.

"It's not debilitating and it doesn't stop me from living my life - I would still always help a stranger. But, if anyone in my family was threatened, I would kill to protect them. For that reason I wouldn't have anything like a gun in my house, because I would stop a burglar any way I could."

The threat of home invasion, real or imagined, has sparked a wave of panic worldwide and provided justification for ordinary citizens to arm themselves, live in gated communities or retaliate with lethal force.

But how likely is it in New Zealand?

Not very, according to police acting national crime manager Detective Inspector Stephen Vaughan.

He says home invasion is so uncommon it isn't even categorised as a specific offence.

"On the rare occasions it does occur, we can't discount the fact that there's some connection between perpetrator and victim that's caused a crime to be committed." In other words, the odds are extremely low that'll be a stranger climbing through your window at 4am - but that's where you do have the power, says Vaughan.

"I would advise people, if they are fearful, to take a measured approach to personal security around the home. We always say to people, ring your local police station, knock on your neighbours' doors.

"Neighbourhood Support is a fantastic mechanism for keeping people safe. Those sorts of groups can give people a lot of support and mitigate the way they feel. I can't speak highly enough of them, actually. If you feel connected to the place you live in, that's half the battle won."

GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOODS

It's a common enough urban phenomenon: the "lactose and wheat-intolerant" dieter or the 10-year-old who only eats organic.

With more access to information comes more concern about how food is produced, particularly in relation to technological advances that take us further from the land and deeper into Frankensteinian obscurity.

The World Health Organisation has published a report addressing public concerns about GM food. It states: "GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved."

It traces the lack of consumer confidence in these foods to the spate of (unrelated) food scares in the 1990s, which included "mad cow" disease and foot-and-mouth.

Given the lack of supporting evidence, what would make the ordinary person fear for their life?

Dr Zane Ferula, a clinician at The Phobic Trust, says an intense aversion to a particular food is usually part of a wider obsessive-compulsive disorder.

"The word 'phobia' is misleading. It means 'to avoid', whereas anxiety is the anticipation of something bad happening. It's designed to keep us safe, evolutionarily speaking, and it's not in itself a bad thing - but with a person suffering from anxiety, their response has gone awry, and they're anticipating danger in the content of their food."

Patients tend to exhibit three responses to this: flight (avoidance), hiding, (not going to places where they'll have to eat), and fight, where they'll become obstructive.

Physically, the symptoms are the same as those associated with fear: racing heart and a rush of adrenalin.

The problem is, says Dr Ferula, worrying about the content of your food can seem sensible at first.

"But anxiety is like a hungry tiger. It starts off small but the more you feed it, the bigger it gets."

- Herald on Sunday

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