Our biggest fears

January 23, 2008 9:23:08 AM PST
A great president once said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But it seems Americans have more to fear than ... well, fear itself. And our biggest fears, it turns out, aren't the things that are most likely to kill us. People fear being in a plane crash or a terrorist attack more than heart disease or cancer, but the likelihood of the former happening doesn't warrant the fear it evokes. Eilenna Denisoff, Ph.D., from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says, "The most important function of our brain is to keep us alive." She says the well-known fight or flight response of the brain evolved faster than the rational part of the brain. She says, "What often happens is that the emotion is activated right before that ... logical piece ... That logic piece ... comes in a fraction of a millisecond after the emotional piece so the anxiety is already there." That could be why immediate threats like shark attacks and lightning scare us more than the risk of dying of heart disease. Denisoff says, "People tend to think of something like heart disease as far off in the distance and something that they could control."

THE BIG WHAT IF'S: So just what tops the list of our biggest fears? For one, plane crashes. About 30 million people say they're afraid of flying and subsequently dying in a plane crash. One-third of people in a recent poll say they're afraid of a terrorist attack. People also fear shark attacks, falling to their death, bee stings and natural disasters. Here's a breakdown of the actual risk of dying from some of these common fears:

  • Plane crashes - The annual risk of dying in a plane crash for is about one in 11 million.
  • Terrorist attacks - After 9/11, this fear is understandable, but the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is only about one in nine million.
  • Shark Attacks - Only 1,909 confirmed shark attacks occurred around the world between 1580 and 2003. Of those, 737 happened in the U.S. and just 38 people died as a result. So rest easy - the actual risk of being attacked by a shark is one in 11.5 million.
  • Bee, Hornet, Wasp stings - The risk of dying by a sting from one of these guys is about one in 4.4 million in any given year.
  • Lightning - Your risk of dying in a lightning strike is one in about 6.2 million in any given year.
  • Floods - Hurricane Katrina aside, the risk of dying in a flood in any given year is about one in 11 million.
  • Poisonous Spiders - The risk of death from spiders in a given year? One in 36.3 million.
  • Falling to Death - The risk of falling to death in a given year is one in 16,881.
  • Poisonous Snakes and Lizards - It's a long shot, but it could happen. In a given year, your risk of being killed by one of these slimy creatures is about one in 145.4 million.

  • Heart Disease: The number one killer of Americans. One in 2.4 people will succumb to heart disease.
  • Cancer: One in four men will die of cancer. One in five women will die of cancer.
  • Diabetes: This rapidly growing disease is the fifth leading cause of death among Americans.
  • Chronic Respiratory Disease: This is in the top five causes of death for males and females.
  • Stroke: This is the third leading cause of death among women. It's number four among men.