Fear is a one of six universal emotions and it is critical for the survival of the human species. Our brain’s main purpose is to make predictions to keep us safe. It is constantly scanning the environment for potential threat. The brain loves predictability because the threat level is already known. When we are presented with a situation that seems risky-physically, psychologically or socially-the brain perceives it as danger and our emotional brain ( the Limbic system-Amygdala) may override our thinking brain (the Prefrontal Cortex). This fear response is triggered particularly when we don’t have enough information or experience to reliably assess the risk, or when the information we do have is ambiguous (Levine, 2020). It is not surprising then, that during the current pandemic so many of us have and continue to operate from a place of fear. Over exposure to information and news, including distressing images and stories, can sensationalize and emotionalize what has been happening with the virus across the world. Individuals may begin to feel directly threatened which in turn results in hypervigilance and further fueling of the fear.
According to neuroscience all this fear isn’t good for us (Vasquez, 2016). Once our fear pathways are ramped up it short circuits our rational processing and we are in a state of “amygdala hijack”. To someone in chronic fear the world looks scary. Fear causes us to lose access to logic, reasoning, problem-solving, listening and empathy. As humans we get scared because we can imagine, and think about what could happen. Unfortunately, this is not always based on fact and can impact our decision making in a negative way. In 2016, researchers Katrin and Matthais Brand, conducted a meta-analysis of over 30 studies involving 64,000 people to determine the effect that fear and the chronic stress it causes has on our decision-making (Levine, 2020). They found that fear causes us to seek immediate relief as it makes us feel bad. We choose an option we can do quickly even if it might have a negative impact in the long run. We use incomplete data to make a decision and often focus on information that resonates with us emotionally instead of possibly more useful or better researched data. In fact, because our brain likes to be efficient, we soon begin to attend to only the information that affirms our current beliefs and we are less open to new or different points of view
Being inundated with news does not mean we are informed unless we are intentionally trying to focus on the facts. According to the Covid -19 Opinion Tracker Research Report, (July 2020) by Kekst CNC, a poll of 6000 people from a nationally representative sample in the UK, Sweden, Germany, France and the US found that people think the virus is more widespread and more deadly than official figures show. On average, in the UK and US individuals reported death rates more than a 100 -200x higher than reality. The findings were similar for the other countries and it is likely that Canada would get comparable results. How do facts get so distorted? The answer is through fear. Ironically, if the situation continues for a lengthy period with no opportunity for rest and repair from the stress fear causes on our physical and mental health, which includes the on-going production of the stress hormone Cortisol, this will actually weaken our immune system and make us vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses not just Covid 19.
So what can you do if you recognize you are “hijacked” by fear? The first step is awareness so that you can catch it. Understanding our brain and fear helps us control it. Be mindful that our thoughts and feelings are just assumptions made by our brains to keep us safe and are not facts. We can gather more information to determine if a particular action is needed for our immediate safety (and that of our loved ones) or if it is an over estimation of threat that is preventing us from making a better choice for our overall well-being. Given the unpredictable and uncertain nature of life, educated risk-taking, hope and optimism are essential. Learning effective coping mechanisms, through self education and exploration or seeking out professional help, can help you and your family in the long-term. Acknowledging fear is not a sign of weakness. Fear is part instinct, part learned and emotions are co-created within our most meaningful relationships. We all have fears. If you are an individual who has not been triggered by the events of the current pandemic just remember that your turn for experiencing fear will come. It takes a well-developed capacity for compassion and respect to be empathetic and potentially reassure someone who is afraid of something we are not. Instead of being dismissive choose kindness. There is truth in the saying that “we are all in this together”.
Kekst CNC, Covid- 19 Opinion Tracker-Research Report. July 10th-15th Edition, Retrieved from https//: www. Kekstcnc.com/media27…ion_tracker_wave-4pdf
Levine, Madeline, PhD, (2020). Ready or Not. Preparing our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, Harper Collins Publishers
Vazquez,, Laurie (2016). What Fear Does to Our Brain and How to Stop It, Big Think, Retrieved from https://bigthink.com-laurie-vazquez