Much of my time as a counsellor and coach is spent working with people whose feelings of fear and anxiety are out of sync with the reality of their situation. I support and help them to see their situation more clearly, to breathe and take stock of their reality. They learn techniques to calm themselves, to take control of their irrational fears. But what happens when the fear they feel is real? When the anxiety is entirely proportionate to the situation? Do the usual strategies stop working? I thought, in these strange and troubling times, it might be helpful to reignite the Yellow Dot Women blog and write a piece about what to do when the fear is real.
What is fear?
Fear is a survival mechanism; a biochemical response to danger which triggers the fight or flight response. Physiological changes, such as a higher heart rate and boosted adrenalin levels, increase our alertness and prepare us to fight the trigger or to run away from it.
Alongside the physical reaction we experience an emotional response to fear. This response is highly individualised and will depend, to a large extent, on our previous experiences and our personal attitude to risk.
The causes of fear
The causes of fear are many and complex. Fear might be:
- Instinctive – caused by real and immediate danger (e.g. a car heading towards you at speed).
- Learned (conditioned) – such as the fear of spiders or other, relatively harmless, creatures.
- Imagined (anticipatory), caused by our own catastrophising thought processes and the ever spiralling “what-ifs”.
What about now?
Covid-19/Coronavirus is now prevalent across the whole world. We are no longer waiting for it to arrive – it is here and most of us now know someone who is experiencing (or has already experienced) symptoms. The virus is having an impact on all our lives. To this extent it is a real and present danger not only to our physical health but to our intellectual, financial and social well-being. It is entirely appropriate to be afraid. What matters is what we do when the fear is real.
When faced with a frightening, stress inducing situation the stress hormones we produce are designed to trigger the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This in turn “fires us up”, ready for action (fight). The normal advice in the face of fear is to control the situation and thus reduce the overstimulation of the SNS. But that is not so easy when the situation, as with the Coronavirus, is entirely out of your control.
When control is not an option, the normal advice would be to escape the fear inducing situation (flight). However, this pandemic is so far reaching that there is nowhere to escape to.
So are we helpless?
No. We are absolutely not helpless. As well as the Sympathetic Nervous System the body can utilise the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), sometimes called the “rest and digest” system which acts as an antidote to the fire-up mechanism of the SNS. This allows us to employ calm and rational thought once the urgency of the situation is diminished.
You don’t need to understand the science – these systems are automatic.
What to do when the fear is real?
The first thing to do is to accept that the fear is real and that it is ok to be afraid.
After that, when the calming PNS sets in, it’s a good idea to identify what you can and can’t control. Following government guidelines, washing your hands and social distancing are all forms of control. Secondary activities such as talking to your bank/building society, employer or accountant etc. are also forms of control which can reduce the fear you are feeling.
When you have taken action it is then ok to indulge in a little positive escapism: Read a book; watch a film; play with your kids; take part in on-line activities with friends or learn a new skill. Be creative. The use of alcohol and/or drugs to escape is significantly less helpful as it stops the body from doing the job it needs to do.
If you find that the calming effect of the PNS is not kicking in you should ask yourself if you are feeding the fear. Spending too long on social media, engaging with “fake news”, obsessively following the death statistics, having the same conversations ad infinitum, all serve to trigger the fight or flight response over and over again. The PNS simply can’t keep up with the imagined or anticipatory fear if you keep feeding it.
If you are repeatedly feeding the fear it may be useful to seek some help, to connect more positively with other people and to think about what you can do rather than how helpless you are.
As always, please get in touch if you are struggling to cope emotionally or psychologically.