What is fear?

Ask ten people “When’s the last time you’ve felt fear?” and there’s a good chance you’ll receive ten different answers: “the moment before the first big drop on a rollercoaster”, “when I missed a step and nearly fell down the subway stairs”, “when I received a text message from my significant other saying ‘we need to talk’”. Fear shows up in a multitude of ways and in various degrees, but a feeling familiar to all, nevertheless.

At its core, fear is our body’s way of alerting us to danger: physical or psychological, real or imagined. It has long been a safety mechanism in potentially harmful situations and is so ingrained in the evolution of humans that it elicits psychological (i.e. the mind), biological, and neurological (i.e. the brain) responses.

Neurologically, fear responses are automatic and involuntary, meaning they occur without us asking them to. But before we get into what goes on in the brain when we’re frightened, it’s important to mention a few key brain structures involved in the process:

  • Amygdala: determines the emotional significance of the information we are taking in and whether something is a possible threat, triggering the fear response when appropriate
  • Hypothalamus: responsible for initiating the fight, flight, or freeze response
  • Thalamus: takes in sensory data (from the eyes, ears, mouth, skin) and decides where to send it
  • Sensory cortex: interprets sensory data
  • Hippocampus: where conscious memories are stored and retrieved from; also processes sets of stimuli to determine context

It’s also worth mentioning that responding to fear involves two separate but simultaneous processes: the low road and the high road. The low road prioritizes speed over accuracy, abiding by the belief that it is better to overreact and end up being wrong than it is to underreact and end up being wrong. The high road is slower, but it provides a more accurate assessment of the situation and the level of danger you’re in.

Say, for example, you’re home alone at night and hear a loud bang come from the other room.

Using the low road, this event is processed as follows:

As soon as you hear the loud bang, sensory data is sent to your thalamus. Unsure whether this noise indicates danger or not, your thalamus—taking the low road—says “better safe than sorry!” and sends this information to your amygdala. Your amygdala has now been alerted of a potential threat to your safety and therefore sends signals to your hypothalamus to trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response. You’re now ready to protect yourself in case the noise you heard is in fact something dangerous, like an intruder.

At the same time, your brain is also processing this situation via the high road:

As soon as you hear the loud bang, sensory data is sent to your thalamus. Unsure of whether this noise indicates danger or not, your thalamus—taking the high road—says “let’s not jump to conclusions” and sends this information to your sensory cortex. Your sensory cortex gathers all the information available and identifies that there is more than one possible explanation, so it sends this information over to your hippocampus. Upon receiving this data, your hippocampus begins to establish context. It asks itself questions like “Do I recognize this information? If so, what did this information mean last time it happened? What else could be the cause of the noise?”. While trying to identify the meaning of this loud noise given its context, the hippocampus continues to take in more information about your surroundings in real time in an effort to determine the significance of this noise.

The fact that the low road assesses this information and makes a judgement call quicker than the high road is the reason that you sometimes feel a moment of terror before actually realizing what is going on.

So then…what about when there is no sudden, scary stimulus to set off our neurological fear response? Why do us humans feel afraid when thinking about abstract, future events that may or may not happen? Thanks to our ability to anticipate, we are able to think about what could happen in the future; fear arises when we think about what could go wrong in the future. For example, many people with a fear of heights haven’t actually experienced falling from a high place and getting injured, but that doesn’t stop their hearts from pounding at the idea of going to the top of the Rockefeller Center.

We can also be conditioned to fear something we previously felt neutral, or even positively, about. In the 1920s, American psychologist John Watson discovered that by pairing a neutral stimulus (i.e., something that doesn’t evoke a positive or negative emotional/behavioral response; for example, a white rat) with a negative stimulus (i.e., something that naturally evokes a negative emotional/behavioral response; for example, a loud noise), he was able to eventually elicit a negative response (e.g. fear) in response to the previously neutral stimulus. This pairing of stimuli is more specifically known as classical conditioning, and it can occur on purpose, like in the (not-so-ethical) experiment above, or accidentally, like when someone becomes afraid of driving after experiencing a car crash.

Now, Little Albert (a.k.a. the participant in Dr. Watson’s experiment) was only 9-months old when he was conditioned to fear white rats, so expecting him to reason with himself about the validity of his new-found fear would have been asking for a bit much. However, fear and its subsequent anxiety can be so convincing that even adults can have a difficult time finding and listening to the irrational bits.

So, while our body always has the intention to keep us safe when triggering the fear response, nonessential fear and subsequent undue anxiety can actually become quite dysfunctional in our day-to-day lives. A dysfunctional emotion is one that is so extreme or unnecessary that experiencing it does not aid us in any way and, rather, impedes our ability to think or act rationally. Anxiety, for instance, often causes us to feel so overwhelmed by a situation that we will do anything in our power to avoid it. If the situation is unavoidable, anxiety may keep us up for nights on end with ruminating thoughts that serve no purpose. Neither of these reactions are productive or help us in any way; however, unless we make the conscious effort to reason with ourselves about the validity of our anxiety or fear, it will continue to control us.

Now, that is not to say that negative things in life do not happen—they do. It is, unfortunately, a reality that we all have to come to terms with. It would be unrealistic to even suggest that someone not experience any sort of negative emotional response to a negative thing happening. However, negative emotions come in the form of both dysfunctional and functional, which is good news for us! Because while anxiety may be dysfunctional due to its debilitating nature, concern and apprehension allow someone to feel a negative emotion without it impairing their ability to react rationally.

How has fear worked for and against people affected by the coronavirus?

As mentioned earlier, and as you’ve probably experienced in your own life, fear is quite good at dictating our behavior. Evolutionarily, this is a good thing—it’s kept humans around and out of danger for thousands of years. It makes us act quickly and take things seriously—even without all the information. So, it makes sense that fear was the predominant emotion back in March when the coronavirus was still new to the United States and spreading quickly. Very little was known about what it was, how it was transmitted, how it showed up in the human body, or how long someone could be infected for before showing symptoms.

People were scared, and rightfully so. So much was unknown, and all we were hearing about was skyrocketing infection rates and hospitals exceeding capacities while running out of supplies. Within a couple of weeks, life as we knew had been flipped upside down. We watched the cities and towns around us shut down, places of work and education go completely online, bars and shopping malls close, and supermarkets and convenience stores go weeks without fully stocked shelves.

We were behind on containing the spread of COVID-19 and on a two-week delay of knowing how our actions were—or weren’t—helping, and fear helped create a necessary rapid change in mass human behavior.

Still, fear is such a driving force that, implied improperly, it can cause undue anxiety and become dysfunctional. And, again, it would be unreasonable to ask anyone to have a positive or even neutral response to the outbreak of the coronavirus. A negative response is both valid and warranted—we’re in the middle of a global pandemic! Simultaneously, it is worth considering when fear turns from being helpful to unjustly impeding on our lives.

For many, the scariest part about the coronavirus is the lack of information we have about it. This uncertainty can quickly lead to spiraling thoughts and awfulizing (aka imagining a situation to be as bad as it can possibly be). Before you know it, a healthy and functional level of fear turns dysfunctional, leaving you overwhelmed by panic and dread and unable to think about or give energy to anything else in your life.

If you’re not sure whether your once functional fear as crossed over into being dysfunctional, it may be helpful to take a moment to assess how fear has or has not negatively impacted the following:

  • Your sleep schedule. Do you struggle with an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, or are you sleeping too much in a way that you didn’t before?
  • Your appetite and your ability to eat. Do you find yourself eating a significant amount more or less than you did before?
  • Your concentration. Do you find it difficult to pay attention to tasks at hand because your mind is preoccupied with thoughts about the “what ifs”?
  • Your productivity. Are you far less or far more productive than you used to be?
  • Your level of avoidance. Are you avoiding aspects of your daily life that you used to enjoy, even if there are safe ways to do it in today’s world, like grocery shopping or going for a walk outside?
  • Your level of optimism about the future. Do you find yourself feeling hopeless about the future, lost in the narrative that there is no hope for achieving future goals or happiness because of the pandemic?

If you found yourself in more of the above assessment points than you ideally would have, your current level of fear may be more destructive than useful. Acknowledging the force that fear has over you—and admitting that it is not currently acting in a functional way for you—is a powerful first step in reclaiming your life. What’s next?

As mentioned earlier, the goal is not to completely rid ourselves of negative emotions. They are a part of life, and we must learn to live with them. Rather, the goal is to rid ourselves of dysfunctional negative emotions and replace them with functional negative emotions. Below are a few tips and tricks to help you make that shift in mindset:

  • Embrace uncertainty…or at least learn to fully accept it. Uncertainty is unenviable, and most people accept it as a way of life multiple times every day without even realizing it. Driving to work (will other drivers abide stay in their own lane?), walking across the street (will cars stop at the red light?), buying your favorite cup of coffee (is this safe to drink?) all come with what-ifs and worse-case-scenarios, but people tend to accept the risk as small enough to disregard and continue on with their lives.

 

Still, uncertainty can be scary. So, how do we help ourselves accept it?

  • Try taking note of when you begin to notice and become uncomfortable about the uncertainty of a situation or when you begin to feel an increased need for certainty. Oftentimes, these feelings are triggered by something within us, like ruminating thoughts about worst-case-scenario happening. It can also be triggered by external sources, like our 24-hour news cycles. Identifying your triggers can help you adjust and respond to them in a way that is helpful for you. So, if watching the news for hours on end is a trigger for you, it may be worth limiting your news consumption to just a few minutes a day, every other day or just once a week.

 

  • Allow yourself to feel the discomfort of being uncertain. Like all other emotions, trying to resist or ignore the feeling of uncertainty often makes it worse. Rather, let yourself feel the discomfort that comes with uncertainty without judgement. Try focusing on your breath or do some grounding exercises that keep you in the present moment (as opposed to allowing your thoughts to spiral). It might also be helpful to remind yourself that no amount of energy you put into worrying or stressing about an uncertainty will allow you to see the future or control something that is out of your hands.

 

  • Re-prioritize your wellbeing. Emotions like fear, anxiety, and stress leave very little room for us to think about anything but what has, or can, go wrong. While our minds are preoccupied with what-if scenarios and a corresponding plan of action for each, self-care is usually put on the backburner. Even the seemingly most simple of tasks, like eating dinner or going for a walk, can be forgotten about completely without us noticing. Think about things you used to do for yourself that you don’t anymore: was it a conscious decision? Was it quietly forgotten about? If you are feeling stuck or want to incorporate something new, here are a few easy-to-try ideas:

 

  • Create a bed-time routine. Falling asleep is not always easy but finding a routine that helps you decompress from the day and sets your mind and body up for a successful slumber is helpful. If you want to know more about how to build a better sleep routine, this Time article by K. Aleshia Fetters is a good place to start.
  • Make your space as relaxing as possible. Consider buying some candles or finding decorations that bring you happiness. If the issue is that your space already feels too cluttered, make the time one day to go through your stuff and critically evaluate what to keep and what to donate/toss. Prioritize keeping this area—whether it be your workspace, bedroom, living room, etc.—organized and tidy. Considering how hectic being a human can be, it can be calming to at least have your physical surroundings feel tranquil.
  • Reconnect with your hobbies. Used to love to read? Buy a new book or pick up an old favorite. Do you miss being creative? Carve out some time and allow yourself to be inspired. Whatever it is, make it a point to reincorporate it into your life.
  • Exercise, but make it fun! Exercise is a great way to naturally decrease feelings of stress and anxiety, but if you’re forcing yourself to go for a run every day when you hate running, chances are the routine won’t stick. There are a variety of ways to exercise, such as swimming, walking, dancing, and yoga. Find an activity that you enjoy or switch it up often—whatever works for you!
  • Meditation is a lot about focusing on the present moment, which is a skill we need to practice over time to become good at. Guided meditations help walk listeners through a variety of different skills (body scans, deep breathing, and more) that allow us to practice being more present in our daily lives. It is also a good time to check in with how you’re feeling, emotionally and physically, without judgement or expectation.
  • For more on self-care, check out the blog “The Powerful Benefits of Self-Care in the Modern Life” written by Gateway to Solution’s Associate Therapist, Christine Menna, LMSW.

At the end of the day, if you still feel overwhelmed by fear, this is a gentle reminder that there is no shame in reaching out for professional support. As Senior Associate Therapist Madeline Weinfeld, LMSW wrote about in one of her recent blogs, anxiety can be incredibly overwhelming—especially during an anxiety-inducing time.

 

Hyperlinks in chronological order:

https://www.verywellmind.com/the-little-albert-experiment-2794994

https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/grounding-techniques.pdf

https://time.com/4366736/6-tips-for-bedtime-routine/

https://www.gatewaytosolutions.org/the-powerful-benefits-of-self-care-in-this-modern-life/

https://www.gatewaytosolutions.org/challenging-anxiety-during-an-anxiety-inducing-time/

 

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