Reading time: 10-15 min
Take away points:
-Fear is an essential component in the study of the coronavirus pandemic
-Fear was originally a tool to avoid individual physical damage.
-Fear has acquired a social function to also avoid harm to the community.
-In the evolution of the human mind and the advancing complexity of our society fear has become a controversial tool.
-There are many ways to experience, to enhance and to sedate fear.
-Everyone has a unique ‘setting’ of onset, intensity, and duration of fear.
Introduction and summary.
In this blog, we delve into the fear that inevitably comes with the coronavirus pandemic. The fear with its milder expression of anxiety and its explosive form of terror is surging during the coronavirus pandemic. We hope to give you some insight and context about fear so that you can understand some of your personal feelings and those of your relatives, neighbours, and people at a distance.
We will have a look at the biological nature of fear as it is seen in all animals (including us), Then we will explore how the evolution in humans has changed fear and why our fear is now so different from animal fear. This will lead us to consider the involvement of our thinking, both in awakening and calming fear.
Furthermore, we will see why fear has an individual setting for every one of us and explain what forms of therapy are available for fears. Some practical advice about help with fears is given at the end.
The nature of fear.
Fear is a protection mechanism for possible harm. The most primal expression of harm is pain. Pain is felt the moment harm is done. And this comes with the primal expression of fear, the impulse to move away from the pain. But fear grew covering more than only pain. Fear also became the notion of harm at close range but not yet there. The birth of this fear must have been a great leap ahead in evolution. Life forms that were capable of feeling harm coming before the actual impact had better-surviving chances than those depending on pain when harm is already inflicted to distance from danger. You can observe this in wildlife, fear is a short-lived thing there. As soon as the danger is gone the notion of fear goes away.
Individual fear and fear of the herd.
A further step in evolution was the distribution of fear in a herd. Only one animal had to spot danger and the whole herd came into an alert state. Further refinement of this mechanism was given by the role of the leader who decided whether the herd had to act on the danger or not.
The difference between animal fear and human fear is the role of the cortex.
With the explosive growth of the outer layer of our brain, the cortex, where uncountable connections are made, thinking and self-awareness become possible. A highly refined form of interacting between us and with the world became possible, a real “shock to the system”. But this way of functioning was “superimposed” so to say on the more crude biological creature that in this aspect did not change at all. Compare if you wish with the strange situation that our computers now capable of beating the best chess players with their artificial intelligence instead of being inanimated pieces of material, were living capricious creatures with all kinds of primitive instincts like fear in full functioning mode by default!
Awakening fear with thoughts.
Therefore the very intelligent brain had to deal with being part of a biological organism and, moreover being dependent on that same organism. As much as our body was “us” now the self-aware brain also became “us”. On the one hand, we could experience fear, on the other hand, we were able to develop sophisticated thoughts about fear. Even worse; our brain with its tenacious tendency to memorize everything could keep us frightened for any imaginable length of time even when the real danger was long gone. Thus the brain enables us to imagine frightening scenarios generating another level of preventive measure to cope with danger. This gave us the upper hand on earth, no other animal does that, but we pay a price for that forward-thinking because at the same time, this new preventive tool generates the real physical sensation of fear since our body only knows one kind of fear.
The birth of existential fear.
This forward-thinking led to what we now call existential fear. Since we are aware of what and who we are, and that we have a limited existence, something that does not seem to bother any animal other than us. And with this knowledge, there is no way back from self-consciousness. Thus the brain itself also became a generator of existential fear. (See a short explanation of existentialism here.)
The coronavirus Pandemic.
After investigating these different aspects of fear it becomes evident that the first thing to do when dealing with fear is differentiating what kind of fear we are dealing with. If we do that for the coronavirus pandemic we see that all kinds of fears are generated and most people suffer from several kinds of fear simultaneously. The direct fear for survival in patients with respiratory distress, fear for our loved ones, fear of becoming contaminated, fear of becoming isolated, social fears in all forms and severity, and fear of death. And on a very different level, fear (or shame) of revealing local failure to deal with the situation, fear of disclosing mistakes, fear of disclosing death rates, fear of losing governing positions.
In a pandemic, our consciousness that “summarises” our complex life in relatively simple and reductive terms finally flashes us a constant state of alarm and our thoughts maintain this state by crawling along with the manyfold scenarios.
Daily life now: try to think “small”.
When we reach the state of alarm we become a primitive fight-or-flight organism. The first thing to do to avoid this ordeal is to evaluate if the survival of ourselves and our loved ones is in danger. If you and/or your loved ones are in acute danger you can rightfully concentrate on that and nothing else, that becomes your sole responsibility, don’t worry about anything else, that will be counterproductive at this moment.
If neither you nor your loved ones are not in direct danger but you are nevertheless frightened, inform yourself how to protect this close group, so contamination can be avoided, and concentrate on that, again all other concerns become counterproductive.
If you are someone who keeps thinking about the situation from a larger perspective and your sophisticated brain is suggesting several scenarios where danger could become imminent for you, try to avoid the pitfalls of blaming others. Be aware that blaming others also generates fear. When we perceive wrongdoing it is experienced as a threat to ourselves and we will sink in the primal survival fear.
If you cannot escape this cycle, a very natural and understandable thing to happen; ask for help, talk to someone, and share your feelings.
For everyone, there is a day when you succumb to fear without seeing a way out. If the coronavirus pandemic is that day for you, you will need help. Having fear is not an illness, it is a healthy survival tool but we have to learn how to adapt our evolved consciousness to deal with the fact that fear itself has become harmful to us.
Calming fear by thought, behavioural approaches.
Surely the good news is that we know that we are also capable of calming our fears with the help of the sophisticated brain. Every form of behavioural or cognitive therapy relies on that capacity. By more elaborate routes like creative therapy, we also see beneficial effects against existential fears. Be creative in finding ways to cope with changes and adaptations that are mandatory.
Calming fear with medication
Another way of dealing with fear is de-routing the brain with neurotrophic drugs (this is the group of substances that alter brain activity). These drugs represent quite a wide array of substances ranging from alcoholic beverages to morphine-like sedatives and everything in between. Pharmaceutical research struggles with the challenge to find substances that only deal with fear (or other aspects of our brain physiology) but that mission is not fully accomplished as of today. Because fear in itself is a normal reaction I would strongly advise consulting your physician before embarking on this road. If you were taking anxiolytics already for other reasons, do not change your medication or dosage without consulting your physician.
Investigating the personal settings and dynamics of fear
We will never get rid of fear since it is an essential building block of our body. We have to accept fear as an evolutionary companion. But we do evolve as individuals and therefore fear in every individual is highly personalized. Every one of us has from birth on (and maybe even already in-utero) a personal history of fear that will influence the onset intensity and duration of fear during our life.
Furthermore, fear interacts, merges and transforms. Grief, exhaustion, desperation, disillusion, and despair intermingle with fear and both physically and mentally these feelings need time, attention, care, and love to heal to regenerate into determination to go ahead.
Maybe you have noticed this yourself; how your feelings, actions, plans and maybe even dreams, and physical awareness have fluctuated, changed, and evolved over the last weeks.
It is not unimaginable that you will discover ways in which fear can also guide you in your personal development and as a pointer on how to navigate as a global community into the future. After all, it did so in a spectacular way for the human race long ago. Will someone lift the curtain to give a sneak peek of a possible future role for the unshakeable companion that is our biological fear? You might be that person.
I invite you to write something about this if you wish and you can send it to us and we will consider mentioning your thoughts or make a blog post with your content.
Illustration: Painting by Pieter Bruegel “the Elder” 1562.