It is most likely that we all use, albeit unconsciously, similar devices to cope with the fear of the supposed inexplicables – the fear of the unknown, the free floating anxiety of everyday life. The method selected by many of us is often a planned, if unconscious, exposure to the ‘horrors’. The horror movie, the bizarre and chilling tale, the weirdness of science fiction are the modern-day equivalents of the old-style melodrama and the spine chilling tales of folklore used by our forefathers for rehearsing their coping skills.
A scientific example of the anxiety- and tension-producing possibilities of supposed inexplicables was reported a few years ago from a psychiatric research establishment in Chicago.
A group of patients, aged between 18 and 49, who were attending a psychiatric outpatients clinic at the Institute of Psychosomatic and Psychiatric Research and Training Hospital of Chicago, were asked if they would like to spend a full day at the hospital. No seriously ill patients were involved in the study, nor was anyone included who had recently been suffering from a psychosomatic illness.
During the morning hours of the experiment, psychological testing was performed, and the volunteers were brought into the laboratory and familiarized with what was to be for them a test situation. They lay on beds and electrical machines for recording blood pressure, heart rate and so on were attached to various parts of their anatomy by a ‘friendly and reassuring’ technician. When all was in readiness the ‘chief’ of the laboratory entered and ceremoniously checked all the equipment. Then after reassuring the patients that all was well he switched on a dummy complex of electronic devices that was clearly visible at the foot of each bed. Finally he told the subjects to be still and relax. The experiment had begun.
After about 15 minutes, noises of a certain and constant character were transmitted through the head phones that the patients wore, and the physical reactions were monitored. Then an unexpected anxiety-provoking procedure began. A mild electric shock was administered to everyone and various electrical noises were transmitted by a hidden loudspeaker. The chief rushed in and indicated that something of an inexplicable nature had happened. When complaints were made about the electric shocks, he told the patients to be very still as there ‘was a lot of high voltage’ about. Almost immediately small electrical spark discharges, accompanied by the smell of burning rubber, issued from the dummy apparatus. The chief then ‘reassured the subjects in a manner indicating that he was far from sure of the validity of the reassurances’.
Eventually the experiment was concluded by the chief leaving the laboratory to ‘cut off the current at a master switch’.
Leaving aside the questionable ethics involved in carrying out such tests on patients (judged as ‘extremely successful in creating a frightening situation, in which subjects sighed, moaned, groaned and offered desperate advice about corrective measures and pleaded in quavering voices’), there seems no doubt that the quality and quantity of the anxiety generated came from the inexplicable nature of what was happening to them. The unknown factor in the situation predominated. Nobody knew what was to follow – more electric shocks, perhaps fire, personal injury or even death by electrocution.
The inexplicable fear of the unknown (how can we really fear something we have never experienced?) is of course felt in a wide variety of ways. The elderly person who receives an unexpected letter (what will it contain?) is at one end of the spectrum. The fear of death lies at the other. Acquiring knowledge of the trigger factors and the symptoms of anxiety, and learning how they can be assuaged by the relaxation response, is what this book is all about.