The COVID 19 epidemic triggered a wave of fear of being infected because of the massive presence of this subject in the media and the particularly exceptional measures that were taken around the world. I therefore thought it necessary to take stock of the emotional phenomenon of fear, its consequences and the way it is handled.
First of all, emotions exist to inform us of our needs and to give us sufficient energy to satisfy them through our actions. This is an adaptive mechanism for our survival, shared by many animals. In the case of fear, it informs us that our safety is under threat and that it requires urgent action to change the situation. It can give us the energy to run faster than usual and escape from danger. In prehistoric times, fear was a very useful adaptive mechanism, because prehistoric life was full of deadly dangers. It was, for example, necessary to anticipate that behind a rock there might be a sabre-toothed cat. The energy that an emotion gives us is used to produce an adapted action, but also to produce thoughts; these thoughts can help us solve the problem at hand and anticipate what will happen next.
Fear is useful. We are alive because our ancestors were afraid and knew how to protect themselves from the dangers that real life presented to them. Indeed, for centuries, the main occupation of human beings was to survive and reproduce to perpetuate the species.
Gradually, since prehistoric times, the issue of survival became less pivotal for a large majority of people. Food insecurity became less prevalent and mortal dangers less and less frequent – apart from periods of war, epidemics or famine. Life expectancy increased, particularly in the last century. All this time we do not spend trying to merely survive anymore has given us more time to think and develop our imagination. Therefore, fear is increasingly fed not by real danger but by our imagination, through our judgments and assessments on life. From a psychopathological point of view, they are organised in phobias: Fear of not succeeding, fear of crowds, fear of others, fear of school, etc.
When fear overtakes our management capacities, our instinctive reaction tends to be the three Fs rule, which prevents us from having the necessary adaptive behaviour:
- F for flight: flight from danger
- F for fight: fight against danger
- and F for freeze: paralysis in the face of danger
Panic is a rush of fear when one loses one’s bearings and does not know what behaviour to choose that would bring one closer to a safe state. It creates mental or behavioural agitation at the risk of aggravating the danger one is facing, just like someone flailing in quicksand.
How to deal with a fear
- First of all make the difference between the future and the present. Quite often, fear feeds on what we imagine will happen in the future, when for the moment everything is fine in the present.
- Distinguish between what we are afraid of, what could happen and what is actually happening to us. There are often very big differences between these three
- Ask the following questions: Where is the problem? Is the worst case scenario certain? How bad is it? What can I do in the moment?
- Don’t stay alone, seek support, reassurance or resources from fellow humans. Indeed, one study showed that, when faced with danger, baboons in the Serengeti in Tanzania had almost zero cortisol and adrenaline levels when fleeing in groups (Levine S., Coe C. and Weiner S.G. : Psychoneuroendocrinology of Stress: a Psychobiological Perspective. In Psychoendocrinology, Brush F.R. and Levine S. Academic Press 1989). Women with cancer who can name ten friends are four times more likely to survive than those who can’t (Kroenke et al: Social Networks, Social Support, and Survival After Breast Cancer Diagnosis. In Journal of Clinical Oncology (2006))
- In the face of hardship or danger, focus specifically on the present moment, so as not to be caught up in a nightmarish future.
- You have to be the captain of your own ship to be the master of your destiny
Part of the solution to the COVID 19 challenge will be to manage the fear it induces. We will have to stay focused on the present and on the actions needed to take care of and protect ourselves. This will probably require us to be able to make concessions in order to have the creativity to adapt. For this to happen, it is vital that everyone is accurately informed about the reality of the situation at every stage. Politicians and the media will have to show pedagogy to make the greatest number of people adhere to the actions decided upon and to protect us as much from denial as from a nightmarish imagination. We need a conductor or a captain to guide us through the fog. But we can all steer in the right direction!