Even at the best of times, we have a complicated relationship with fear—we are often told that it’s something to suppress or overcome. We print President Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous quote, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself’ on mugs and T-shirts; millions of people have purchased psychologist Susan Jeffers’ 1987 self-help book, Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway.
In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are adjusting not only to social distancing and lockdowns, but to the psychological strain of living under a cloud of fear: fear for our health, our loved ones, our jobs, and the world.
Existing in a perpetual state of high-alert can be paralysing, but fear is an important, universal emotion. Canadian science-journalist Eva Holland, author of the new book Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear (2020), explains that the key is to distinguish between useful fear—the kind that motivates us to take productive action—and out-of-control dread or anxiety.
With a threat as dangerous as COVID-19, it can be difficult to calibrate the right response. “Coronavirus represents a whole pack of fears,” Holland says—some that we should react to, and others that we should try to resist. “Coronavirus is a clear, objective threat to many of us, if not all of us, to varying degrees. But it also contains elements of that kind of subjective, perceived threat, so it’s complicated.”
The fear of spreading the virus from person to person, for instance, is “very valid” and there is a “practical response”: social distancing, hand-washing, careful hygiene. Others, such as fears about food shortages and supply-chain breakdowns, are less reasonable. “That’s the fear we need to resist reacting to,” Holland tells Vogue.
Our gut responses may be further muddled by mass panic. Fear is contagious—not just on a psychological level, but on a chemical one, too. We can spread fear by tweeting in all caps, or we can spread it in real life without even trying. Frightened animals unconsciously release alarm pheromones to tip each other off to nearby threats, and scientists believe that humans do something similar. One 2009 study by psychologist Denise Chen found that subjects could smell the difference between the sweat of someone watching a horror movie and the sweat of someone watching a more neutral programme—and exposure to the former set off a biological fear response.
When all you’re feeling is the crush of fear—heart racing, pupils dilating, goosebumps blooming on your skin—it’s hard to identify and evaluate the trigger. Here, Holland offers strategies for calming down and figuring out how (if at all) to respond.
“If you can calm your physical response, your emotional response will subside to some degree as well,” Holland explains. “If you can slow your breathing, your mind will let up a bit.” This will leave you better equipped to differentiate between rational and excessive fears.
“Some people are finding comfort in really large quantities of information,” Holland says. If you’re bingeing on dystopian fiction—Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague has shot up the Amazon rankings in recent weeks—watching movies such as Contagion (2011) or researching the flu pandemic of 1918, you are giving yourself a kind of crude exposure therapy. Typically, exposure therapy would be a gradual process; rather than being suddenly plunged into a coronavirus-filled world, we would be incrementally introduced to it in a safe, controlled environment.
Holland managed to overcome her own lifelong fear of heights by taking a job in Canada’s mineral exploration industry: working in the mountains all day, she eventually adapted to life at thousands of feet above ground level. One researcher Holland interviewed, Israeli psychologist Edna Foa, hypothesises “that exposure therapy trains the brain to create a second, competing structure alongside the fearful one.”
The new structure, Foa explains, “does not have the fear, and does not have the perception that the world is entirely dangerous and that oneself is entirely incompetent.” But we don’t want to go too far and extinguish our fears completely—whether of pandemics or of heights. After Holland returned from her stint as a miner, a friend suggested she test her new tolerance for heights by standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. “I was like, ‘That’s not a good test because that’s a legitimately dangerous thing to do’,” Holland says.
Distract yourself and see if your fear-response calms down. “Maybe you need to watch a funny video to take your mind off things,” suggests Holland. Or call a friend or relative. “Last night, I got overwhelmed and I called my dad,” she says. “I was on the verge of tears and panic, but by the time we got off the phone, I was laughing.”
“We tend to treat fear like a failing,” Holland says. “It’s so often synonymous with cowardice or weakness.” But ignoring it can be counterproductive. “My worst panics have always been when I’m trying to choke them down. There’s some value in accepting these feelings and letting them wash over us and not reacting in the moment—just feeling them and saying, ‘OK, I’m afraid.’ It’s fine to be scared. It’s built into us for a reason, and we just need to respond to it with care and thought, rather than feeling we shouldn’t be feeling that way at all.”
Her main piece of advice? Forget Jeffers’ injunction to “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Instead, Holland concludes: “Feel the fear and make careful choices.”
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