Are we at risk for everything?  Do we now accept danger as simply inevitable?

Rebecca Hester, assistant professor in the Department of Science and Technology in Society, has done research suggesting that may be the case.

“It seems that we have gone from the idea of securing our freedom from danger to having accepted that danger exists and we need to prepare for it. We are in a perpetual state of emergency,” she said.

Hester was one of 15 international scholars who participated in a recent two-day workshop, “Risk, Fear, and Resilience: Implications for Societies, Communities, and Individuals,” sponsored by the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience at Virginia Tech. 

The group that gathered at the Virginia Tech Research Center -- Arlington  represented the fields of neuroscience, the social sciences, and political science. 

“The relationships between risk, fear, and resilience cannot be examined by any one discipline and need to be looked at across scales, from the brain to the larger society,” said Jim Bohland, principal research associate of the Global Forum. “There are too many vectors in place due to political, economic, social, behavioral, and environmental patterns that form contemporary life to be shortsighted in our approach.”

Genetics, early life trauma during critical periods of brain development, and how close one actually comes to a risky or dangerous situation are just a few factors that can influence an individual’s propensity toward anxiety and fear.

“No two people are really alike. When encountered with the same stress factors, one individual might develop vulnerabilities, like depression and anxiety, while another becomes resilient," said Sarah Clinton, associate professor in the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech.

The workshop attendees also explored the idea that people are often taught to be afraid of certain things. Christine Bachrach, a research professor in sociology at the University of Maryland, pointed out that certain groups in our society profit from fear. These include political groups, especially those based in nationalism or racism.

Fear is often fueled by social and political forces, the group agreed, but being able to distinguish between the possibility and probability of a risk or danger can help alleviate fear and anxiety.

The parenting culture of fear was also discussed.

“Parents play a critical role in contributing to larger cultural notions of fear,” said Bachrach. “They serve as mediators, helping children learn what is dangerous and what is not."

Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, United Kingdom, social commentator and author, said that a rise in fear and anxiety has had an effect on child rearing. Out of fear parents now are trying to control all aspects of their children’s lives.

“Many ideas were shared during the two-day workshop,” said Bohland. “It is important that we try to understand the relationships between fear, risk, and resilience across disciplines to help communities understand how they might best meet citizens’ needs. These themes will be continued in future meetings of the Global Forum.”

Bohland; Hester; Jennifer Lawrence, postdoctoral research associate at the Global Forum; and Mark Orr, research associate professor at the Biocomplexity Institute at Virginia Tech, convened the Risk, Fear, and Resilience Workshop.

François Debrix, a professor in Virginia Tech's  Department of Political Science and director of the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought, also participated in the workshop, which was supported by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and the Office of the Vice President in the National Capital Region.


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