In just a few short weeks the world has changed. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that triggers the infection commonly known as COVID-19 was officially called a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization on January 30, 2020.1 Concern over the spread of the virus has triggered a cascade of events with far-reaching consequences.
A two-week unilateral truce has been called in Yemen2 to prevent viral spread, stores are closing; and there is a quiet spread of fear created by daily news headlines claiming more deaths, more infections and more change. While store closings and job layoffs are real, it’s hard to tell the truth from fiction in some reports.
Many are worried about their job security and the stress of isolation from family and friends. There have not been many other periods in history when the whole world has waited to see what the next day would bring.
The Difference Between Being Scared and Being Fearful
During this time some are feeling fearful, which is not surprising considering the barrage of bad news. Each report seems worse than the last as the various media compete for an audience. Understanding the difference between being scared and fearful is a good place to start, since one makes life more difficult and the other heightens alertness and makes senses become sharper.3
Many people enjoy the feeling of being scared in a controlled environment. It can be invigorating when more oxygen reaches your brain and your pulse rate rises. Think about watching a thriller or riding a roller coaster: The reason people enjoy those activities is because they have a controlled feeling of being scared.4
Under controlled circumstances, people simultaneously experience stress and pleasure. In one study, researchers measured cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, emotional state and immunoreactivity before and after 12 novice bungee jumpers took the plunge.5
They found what you probably have experienced if you enjoy theme parks was that anxiety and cortisol were high before the jump, while immunoreactivity and euphoria were high after the jump. But, those feelings are far different from fear that generates anxiety and worry.
Instead of the natural fight-or-flight reaction that may save your life if you’re being attacked, fear paralyzes your mind and your body. The fear response during the COVID-19 pandemic is not new to society. In 2015, the headline in the American Psychological Association6 could have referenced 2020 — “An Epidemic of Fear.” The writer was talking about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Although there were only a small number of confirmed cases in the U.S., the fear of infection leveraged a disproportionate response in some people. Parents in three states pulled their children out of school and a teacher in Maine was put on leave.
Fear Response to a New Threat Is Expected
Paul Slovic, Ph.D., is president of Decision Research, a nonprofit organization dedicated to studying human judgment. He was not surprised by the reaction to Ebola. His comments in 2015 are as true now as they were then:7
“What happened was quite consistent with what we know about risk perception. The minute the Ebola threat was communicated, it hit all of the hot buttons: It can be fatal, it’s invisible and hard to protect against, exposure is involuntary and it’s not clear that the authorities are in control of the situation.”
New and different threats raise a person’s level of anxiety higher than threats with the same or similar consequences, but which are familiar. This may be related to the response in your amygdala in the brain, which helps the brain process emotions.
The authors of one study8 found that the activity in the amygdala rose when participants were shown repeated images of unfamiliar flowers and snakes, while repeated images of familiar images of those same categories of natural objects did not raise the activity. As Ryan Holiday writes:9
“Being afraid? That’s not fight or flight. That’s paralysis. That only makes things worse. Especially right now. Especially in a world that requires solutions to the many problems we face. They’re certainly not going to solve themselves. And inaction (or the wrong action) may make them worse, it might put you in even more danger. An inability to learn, adapt, to embrace change will too.”
Preparation and Knowledge Reduce Fear
While fleeting feelings of concern are expected when faced with new experiences, continued feelings of anxiety and paralysis interfere with daily life. Those feelings are detrimental to your mental health. Holiday writes it is10 “Training. Courage. Discipline. Commitment. Calm.” That reduces the panic and fear induced by hyperbolic media headlines often used to drive revenue.
Training, education and preparation are the foundation of courage. The difference between being fearful and being scared is that fear paralyzes your ability to evaluate what’s happening and make decisions. But preparation and information help you to make decisions and act, even when you’re scared. This is the definition of courage — taking action despite being scared.
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt stood outside the East Wing of the U.S. Capitol building11 to give his inaugural address after having been elected President of the U.S. Within the first few minutes, he said the line that has been repeated for generations, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”
However, this is just the middle of one sentence and it doesn’t communicate the full thought. As you read these words, you’ll see he was telling the people that fear was a choice and it was the real enemy of recovery. His description of fear — a “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” — rings as true now as in 1933:12
“This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Fear is frequently fed by misinformation and emotionally laden news headlines, among other things. In fact, reading the news when there isn’t a pandemic may be just as fear-inspiring. As Psychology Today13 points out, it’s rarely the good news that makes the headlines and attracts readers. Instead, it’s violence, unrest, deaths and destruction.
There Is No Problem so Bad That You Can’t Make It Worse
Yet, as Holiday writes, it’s preparation and information that make it easier to set fear aside, evaluate the headlines with a clear mind and discern when things aren’t adding up. He uses a story about Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield to illustrate this point:
“’It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people,’ he says. ‘We’re just, you know, meticulously prepared …’ Think about someone like John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, whose heart rate never went above a 100 beats per minute the entire mission. That’s what preparation does for you.
Astronauts face all sorts of difficult, high stakes situations in space—where the margin for error is tiny. In fact, on Chris’ first spacewalk his left eye went blind. Then his other eye teared up and went blind too. In complete darkness, he had to find his way back if he wanted to survive.
He would later say that the key in such situations is to remind oneself that ‘there are six things that I could do right now, all of which will help make things better. And it’s worth remembering, too, there’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse also.’”
Ben Okri, novelist and poet, has some of the same thoughts about fear and the damage it does to the human mind and body. Writing in The Guardian, he works to define the difference between awareness of a problem and panic in the midst of it. He writes:14
“One can be aware of the coronavirus, aware of what needs to be done to minimise its spread — and we must do those things. But one should not make the situation worse with the negative imagination that is fear. For, like fire, imagination can create or it can destroy. It can make us act from our worst selves.
That is what panic does. Panic is fear on steroids. With panic, sanity is lost. Ever since the virus entered our mental culture, it has become omnipresent. We have been engulfed in its world, in its fearsome power.”
Long-Term Fear Damages Your Health
Preparation begins with understanding the long-term consequences of fear and panic to your health — and realizing these health conditions are neither inevitable nor necessary to your survival. Fear triggers the release of cortisol, part of the fight or flight response, and chronic stress.15 As you’ll discover in this short video, it has far-reaching consequences.
It’s time to take control of your physical and mental health by controlling the fear and stress that the media seems bent on serving up to the public. These skills will be important throughout your whole life. You can recognize the physical response to fear and chronic stress even if you don’t recognize the feelings. Many of these symptoms include:16,17,18,19
Muscle tension or pain
Lack of motivation
Irritability or anger
Sadness or depression
Change in eating habits
Weight gain or loss
Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
Back, neck and shoulder pain
Worsening of chronic health conditions
Immune system suppression resulting in viral illness (colds)
Increased wheezing in people with asthma
Suppression of natural killer cells and tumor development
Strategies to Reduce Fear and Remain Focused
There are several strategies you can use to reduce your feelings of fear. It is important to begin with the understanding that feelings do not have a life of their own. In other words, feelings are generated. Your feelings change depending upon your circumstances and your thoughts. Watching a funny movie may trigger laughter and feelings of happiness. Watching a sad movie brings many to tears.
Reading the headlines during an epidemic or pandemic can trigger fear. There’s an unknown factor in the situation. You may not have control over the news media, but the good news is you have control over your thoughts and your health. When you feel sad watching a particular movie the feelings are generated by what you see as well as your thoughts in response to that.
In other words, your thoughts engender feelings. One of the strategies you can use to reduce or eliminate feelings of fear is to change your thoughts. Psychology Today20 recommends reducing anxiety by limiting your exposure to the news and trying to consume positive news stories while you’re keeping up with what’s going in the world.
It’s important to pay careful attention to “vague or loaded terms, cited statistics, and unstated assumptions.” In other words, don’t accept at face value what’s in the news but, rather, consider the information and ask questions about what you’re being told.
Other stress-reducing techniques include getting enough exercise, eating whole foods, limiting sugar and getting quality sleep. When you’re tired and your body doesn’t have adequate nutrition to function, you’re more apt to fall into the trap of becoming fearful. Another strategy is the use of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).
In the video below Julie Schiffman demonstrates a tapping strategy specifically for this pandemic. If you aren’t familiar with EFT you’ll find a library of demonstrations at “Basic Steps to Your Emotional Freedom.” For more about stress see “Documentary Reveals How Stress Kills.”