Pandemic fear has gripped the globe for an entire year, and it continues to hold tight. Warnings of even more contagious and deadly disease variants are suspected just over the horizon, as constant coverage of case numbers and death counts urge us to stay diligent or risk certain doom.
The goal of this incessant message is to save lives, but the cost has been high. This past year on high alert has resulted in a sharp uptick in suicides, mental health problems, drug overdoses, and domestic abuse.
Research shows that fear messaging can effectively influence public behavior, but it also harms people in the process. In an article published June 2020 in the journal Health and Behavior, researchers point to several studies that show that fear-inducing public health campaigns can also inspire denial, backlash, avoidance, defensiveness, stigmatization, depression, anxiety, increased risk behavior, and a feeling of lack of control.
“Fear appeals, also known as scare tactics, have been widely used to promote recommended preventive behaviors,” researchers wrote. “We contend that unintended negative outcomes can result from fear appeals that intensify the already complex pandemic and efforts to contain it.”
Fear is an awful feeling, but it’s that way by design. This hardwired survival mechanism jolts us into action when we face life-threatening situations.
Unfortunately, this feeling can misfire. Fear is infamous for distorting reality. It can make small threats appear bigger than they actually are, and force us to live under the stress of every worst-case scenario.
But how can fear be a source of both good and bad advice? According to Brandon LaGreca, author of the new book, “Cancer, Stress and Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience,” it’s not so much the feeling as your reaction to it. LaGreca, who also practices Chinese medicine, says the quality of advice we get from fear all depends on how well we manage it.
“It’s about evaluating our fear, seeing if it’s warranted or not, and then considering what we can do about it,” LaGreca said.
To get a better perspective on the strange dual nature of this raw emotion, LaGreca breaks fear into two basic categories: immediate and looming. One we have little control over, and the other we control way too much.
Immediate fears are those that strike with no warning and demand immediate action.
“Say someone is driving in front of you and slams on the breaks. Your body has to respond.” LaGreca said. “That saves your life. You slam on the breaks, you swerve, and you do what you need to do.”
Compare this to fears in the looming category—things like rejection, abandonment, death, social discord, political turmoil, and fear of the unknown. These fears can weigh on us for weeks, months, or for much of our lives. They threaten some point in our future, but you never know when. Looming fears force us to be on guard at all times. To an outside observer, these fears may appear trivial and unwarranted, yet we still suffer.
Our responses to immediate and looming fears also differ biochemically. LaGreca says that when confronting an immediate fear, your adrenal glands pump out epinephrine and norepinephrine. This gives you a quick surge of energy and focus to handle the acute situation. When the danger has passed and we catch our breath, the fight or flight state fades, and stress hormones fall back to baseline.
The hormone that primarily helps us mitigate looming fear is cortisol. However, the obsessive nature of looming fear never gives this hormone a break. And when cortisol is chronically elevated, mental and physical damage can result.
In addition to handling stress, cortisol regulates inflammation and blood sugar. However, the body is designed to make threats a priority, even if other functions suffer. In an environment of neverending stress and elevated cortisol, people typically acquire fat more easily and have a harder time losing it. Their immune function suffers. Blood sugar is thrown off balance. And the whole body is subjected to greater wear and tear.
“We are making ourselves sick by making this chronic cortisol exposure and then having all of the inflammation that comes with that,” LaGreca said. “We know that cortisol is catabolic to the gut. That causes long-term damage to the body.”
Fear has an important function, but you have to be able to shut it off at some point. We need to shift from fight or flight to rest and digest—a much calmer, healthier long-term state of being.
You can see this flip from one state to another in nature. The rabbit who runs from the rottweiler will soon be happily munching on violet leaves just behind the fence. Humans, however, are prone to ruminating about the past and fretting about the future; perpetuating our fears, maintaining stress, and keeping cortisol elevated.
The adrenaline jolt of immediate fear is designed to protect you from harm, but looming fear is a recipe for disease if we can’t break this cortisol loop. Living long term in a fear-filled state has been shown to weaken the immune system, upset our digestion, and accelerate aging through an inflammatory process found at the heart of chronic disease.
Chronic disease is the nemesis of modern medicine. Chronic disease is slow, often invisible, and usually tied firmly to lifestyle and stress. Acute disease or injury is local and often has immediate causes and cures, like clearing a clogged artery or sewing up a wound.
“We’re really good at the acute stuff—that’s how our species has survived. And then there’s this long-term, chronic stuff,” LaGreca said. “It’s this latter category that I really focus on, especially when it comes to cancer patients, but you could also apply it to people being afraid of COVID.”
Chronic disease is persistent and ongoing. It isn’t easily remedied with drugs or surgery. It’s usually systemic and tied to the patterns of lifestyle we established over a lifetime.
Name That Fear
It’s tempting to run from fear. And in some immediate instances, fleeing may be the best option. But for looming fears, we’re better off choosing fight over flight.
That fight starts by examining the fear you feel. It helps tremendously if you can share it with others.
“Think about a cancer patient. If they’re bottling all that up, it’s going to make it twice as bad,” LaGreca said. “Instead of just thinking, ‘This is a horrible diagnosis. I’m afraid of dying,’ get it out. Tell it to family or therapists. Do whatever it takes. To be able to name your fear takes the teeth out of it.”
If you do nothing to acknowledge your fear, you may not even realize it’s there. You may just sense some looming feeling that you’re always desperately trying to escape. Registered nurse and trauma recovery coach Jami Carder said she was in her 40s when she first learned that fear had guided nearly every decision she had ever made. When she made up her mind to embrace her fears, everything changed.
“Each time I was faced with something fearful, it gave me a chance to be brave,” Carder said.
As she examined her fears, she found that they all pointed to a similar theme: She was afraid of rejection. As she began to confront these feelings and push past her fear, she felt herself become stronger.
“Many times, the things I feared never happened. Actually, most of the time. But sometimes I was rejected or abandoned. And it didn’t feel good at all. But I survived,” she said. “I’ve faced rejection and received rejection enough times now that I almost feel invincible.”
Of course, that invincible feeling typically doesn’t happen overnight. But, LaGreca says, even those not yet strong enough to confront their fears can still learn to sit with them and become more comfortable in their presence.
“We can’t necessarily shut off that fear response, but we can dampen it with things like breathwork and meditation,” he said. “They can certainly change your setpoint so that you’re not as responsive to the stresses as they come up. You can build resilience by doing so.”
A Call to Action
Fear can be uncomfortable, even painful. But it’s a pain that needs to be heard. Trying to ignore your fear will only end up hurting you more.
Firearm instructor Cindy Frost says using fear as a motivational vehicle has saved her life countless times. She describes one occasion when she was a young police officer. Frost was searching a rough neighborhood for a man who had violently threatened a woman earlier that night. Sizing up a suspect she spotted on the street, Frost considered if she should call for backup.
“I spotted a man who stood over six feet, had a very large belly, silver combed-back hair, and was wearing a flannel shirt. He was walking in the middle of the street,” Frost said. “The hair at the back of my neck rose with every detail that confirmed this was likely the offender.”
Frost had handled many calls and traffic stops without assistance during her nightly tour of duty. But she was familiar enough with the chill of fear to know that this was a time she couldn’t act alone.
“These are God-given reactions,” Frost said. “Listen and consider the emotion of fear to be a directive. Respond accordingly.”
Shift Your Focus
There’s a distinct difference between examining your fear and obsessing over it. One is a motivator. The other is just a burden.
“Anxiety and worry is the act of taking that raw emotion and then allowing it safe harbor within your mind,” Frost said.
The goal isn’t to shut off this survival mechanism, but to be mindful of its message and cultivate the courage to handle it. Anything less just feeds the fear.
For fashion designer and happiness coach Evey Rosenbloom, the fear she fed was that something horrible might happen to her family. It all started when a wildfire and a shooting happened in her area. The events made Rosenbloom worry incessantly about her children’s safety. She says she was stuck in constant fight-or-flight mode.
Rosenbloom could see this obsession destroying her mind and body, but she couldn’t stop. She poured hours of research into how to prevent violent crime, and monitored all the potential threats her community might face. Her health continued to deteriorate.
“The more I read, the more anxious I got, until it hit me on a physical level. Suddenly, I was seeing flashes of light and felt like I was going to collapse,” Rosenbloom said. “The dizziness lasted for months. I was diagnosed with vestibular migraines, and when the doctors told me there was no cure, I felt like my life was over. I began to feel overwhelming sadness, wishing I could have given my kids a happy life.”
What finally snapped Rosenbloom out of her endless fear loop was when her 4-year-old daughter found her crying. She said, “Mommy, you can choose to be happy.”
From that moment on, Rosenbloom shifted her focus from fires and violence to joy. She disconnected from anything that stressed her out, starting with the news. She filled the void with uplifting podcasts and happy music.
“It was incredible how quickly I was able to transform into feeling like myself again once I was able to recognize and eliminate the stressful content and rewire my brain through positive thoughts and actions,” she said. “It was liberating to decide that I would no longer let my fears keep me from celebrating life. Instead, my priority was to create a positive environment for my children.”
Fear is an innate protective mechanism, but manipulative forces are known to take advantage of this hardwired reflex. Propaganda is notorious for hacking into emotion for political gain and leading people to make choices out of fear rather than logic.
Those brave enough to examine the unconscious reactions triggered by the looming threats can begin to look beyond fear as the only adviser and turn to something more sustainable.
Like Rosenbloom, LaGreca says to focus on the positive. He recommends gratitude as a pivot.
“Take, for example, March of last year, where you didn’t know if you’re going to have enough toilet paper or food,” LaGreca said. “That’s when you should ask, ‘What do I have? What can I be grateful for? Who are the people in my community that are supporting me right now?’ Draw on all those positive aspects in your life that you can tap into. It’s huge.”
Our survival depends on our ability to respond to the threats that confront us, but we also must notice our abundance and support. If your fear feels like a disease, try to instead think of it as a teacher. Listen for the lessons it gives.
“What are the imbalances in your life? And how can you use this as a wake-up call to be a more empowered person on the other side of it?” LaGreca said.
“Healing is about becoming a fundamentally different person on the other side of whatever you’re going through.”