When we feel fear, a rush of chemicals from the brain causes a wide range of physical and emotional responses. Many people feel their heartbeat quicken, muscles tighten, and find it difficult to take deep breaths. When we’re triggered by fear, most of us enter “fight or flight” mode, a survival mechanism that helps us combat or flee dangerous situations. It was an incredibly useful response during the early stages of human evolution, but researchers believe it rarely serves a purpose in modern life. In fact, it becomes a problem when we have a life-or-death reaction to everyday scenarios like public speaking, driving a car, or seeing a spider.
Many of us are justified in experiencing fear during the coronavirus pandemic, but the more we know about this feeling, the better we can manage it.
The Negative Effects of Fear
The more often our bodies enter a state of fear, the more often we feel long-term effects of chronic stress. This includes a weakening of our immune system, and a greater likelihood of high blood pressure, muscle pain, heart disease, obesity, and insomnia. Fear has also been linked to increased issues with anxiety, depression, and substance use disorder. We’re simply not supposed to live with frequent or prolonged states of hyperarousal. If we don’t learn how to limit the responses and conquer or manage our fears, we’re at higher risk for developing bad coping strategies that can make things even worse.
Negative Coping Strategies for Stress
Since fear doesn’t feel good, most of us will do almost anything to get rid of that feeling. Unfortunately, many of us also use bad coping strategies that cause more serious issues down the road. This can include overeating, excessive alcohol consumption, or using illicit drugs to soothe or alleviate the uncomfortable feelings associated with fear. These coping strategies may work in the short-term, providing temporary relief, but most of the time there are negative consequences associated, and these strategies don’t keep fear from returning. As you get stuck in this cycle of fear and soothing, dependence on the soothing coping strategy — or health problems caused by over-consumption — often compound fears and present new problems to tackle.
Another negative coping strategy is avoidance. This can be passive (e.g. not attending social events) or active (e.g. excessive washing to protect from germs). When we use passive avoidance, we’re letting our fear stop us from participating in the full tapestry of life’s possibilities. You have just the one life to live — you don’t want to spend it beholden to your fears. It’s far better to have control over your fears or at least be able to manage them effectively.
With active avoidance strategies, we’re attempting to control fear but instead become overdependent on rituals and “safety behaviours” — those behaviors that can become compulsive and maladaptive, like having to check to make sure the oven is off a certain number of times before leaving the house. Yes we’re hypervigilant, staying alert to threats, performing our safety activities in order to temporarily soothe our fears, but we become slave to avoidance or ritual.
The Healthy Way to Deal with Fear
What if you could let go of bad coping strategies and stop fear from playing a starring role in the story of your life? The key is getting to the root of your fear, exposing yourself to the perceived threat, and finding healthy ways to cope with your anxiety and stress.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can help people overcome fear-related conditions including social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. The basic idea is that our emotional reactions and behaviour are strongly linked to our thoughts. Your fear response isn’t irrational — it makes perfect sense to be terrified if there’s truly a threat. This is why it helps to work with a therapist and unpack why you believe things like going to parties or speaking up at a meeting is a threat you should fear. You might be surprised to realize that internalized beliefs about the world or yourself are actually what cause your fears.
For example, a person who fears socializing with strangers might have unresolved issues about their own self-worth. They believe that they’ll say something stupid or act awkwardly. It’s no wonder they don’t want to make small talk over cheese cubes. However, if they can realize, however, that truly no one is judging them as harshly as they’re judging themselves, the fear of parties may decrease.
Exposure therapy is another effective technique that therapists use to help people face their fears. This is a process whereby you gradually test your ability to handle anxiety and refrain from negative coping strategies. If you’re afraid of spiders, your “homework” from your therapist might include looking at photos of a spider or touching a ball of yarn that looks like a spider. If you get nauseated just thinking about public speaking, a good first step could be recording yourself giving a short speech in the privacy of your bedroom. By monitoring your reactions and gradually increasing the exposure, your fear will likely be mitigated or away completely. There is a great deal of research that validates the efficacy of these therapies and many people go on to live happy, fear free lives.
There are, however, some fears that we can’t zap out of existence completely. The coronavirus is one of those. The goal, however, is for your fear to not interrupt your life — to be safe, practice physical distancing — but that it’s okay if you still have a tingle of anxiety. Replacing your bad coping strategies for good ones can help in those dark moments that many of us are experiencing.
Learning how to calm yourself with affirmations, deep breaths, or mindful meditation are just a few examples of positive coping behaviours. Working with a licensed therapist to find strategies that lessen your fear response can turn a bad situation into one that’s manageable and lets your live your life with less fear and more freedom.