The world feels pretty shaken up right now, doesn’t it?
If you’re in a situation like mine (and you probably are), you’re busy figuring out how to move forward, making changes to your schedule, thinking about how to best help your community, and trying your best to manage the collective anxiety that’s in the air.
Which got me thinking… Yes, we need to track the spread of the virus but is anyone monitoring how quickly fear is spreading? Fear is the greatest contagion of all; and in the midst of all that’s going on, the media are riding the vibe to record ratings.
Most of us have had very little time for reflection as we’ve tried to understand the basics of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and adjust to a “new normal.”
But it’s impossible to deny the collective anxiety we’re experiencing right now.
You can spot signs of alarm everywhere, at both the micro and macro level. You can hear it in the silence and the stares after someone coughs. You can see it from the shelves emptied from people rushing to the store to stock up on food, sanitizer, and toilet paper. You can feel it as schools, restaurants, and offices choose to shut down.
You can recognize it in the aggressive, sometimes unproductive responses of countries around the world (more on that later).
This fear that has been transmitted through the media and through person-to-person conversations has impacted billions, yet no one has been trying to quarantine these negative frequencies. Let’s note, that this cannot be something we wait to see led by our political leaders or news reporters, this is something we need to be monitoring in our own lives and process.
Before I move forward, I want to be clear that I’m not trying to downplay the severity of the challenges that we’re facing. You and I should try our best to take precautions, follow best practices like washing our hands with soap and water, and stay aware of what’s happening in our communities — locally and globally.
But I do think that we can learn something from COVID-19 and our responses to it.
Here’s How Fear Affects You And How To Calm It
Another question: Why does COVID-19 scare us so much?
Yes, there are good reasons to be concerned, such as caring about our loved ones who have suppressed immune systems, who don’t have healthcare, and who live paycheck-to-paycheck. We also know that COVID-19 is more severe and contagious than the flu.
But there seem to be other aspects driving our fears as well.
For one, uncertainty is often a breeding ground for fear — and there is a lot of uncertainty about the virus, our jobs, and the future. This uncertainty creates a cycle encouraging us to glue our eyes to news feeds to watch for any changes, only to find out more changes every hour that ramp up our fears.
How Fear Works
Fear, at the most basic level, is protective. It activates your survival response but it also makes you more vulnerable.
Neuroimages show us that fear operates from the back part of the brain, the reptilian brain. This reptilian brain is over two million years old. And when you’re operating from this part of your brain, your cerebral cortex — a much younger part of the brain responsible for critical thinking — becomes extremely limited.
This is a survival technique born of evolution. It is designed so that you can narrow your thinking and respond to the threat at hand.
It helps you react quickly by pumping adrenaline through your body and shutting down any unnecessary functions. Functions like rational thinking, the reproductive system, and your immune system.
Because the fear instinct is designed for short-term situations, when you stay in that mode over the long-term your body takes a hit. Your immune system weakens; your problem-solving ability worsens; and daily habits like exercise, sleep, and eating can suffer as well.
Unfortunately, these byproducts of fear also make us more vulnerable to the virus.
So if the buzz around COVID-19 is leaving you anxious and exhausted, here are a few practices you can do to calm your nervous system and keep fear from spiralling:
- Take a deep breath and practice meditation
- Practice good sleep hygiene
- Pare down your news sources
- Plan ahead and take precautions
- Move your body and eat well (less sugar!)
- Seek support
As you reassure your body and mind with the support it needs, it’s also important to remember that bias is often the undercover agent of fear. It’s what stops us from seeing our reflection in others.
Unfortunately, we can see this in the way that many in our government bodies have chosen to attach nationality, race, and foreignness to a virus that does not discriminate.
But this has an important lesson to teach us as well.
The Illusion Of Borders
We’ve seen the rise and downfall of nationalistic tendencies long before this outbreak. But it’s no surprise that in an increasingly globalized world, these tendencies would re-emerge.
Many want to slow the pace of change within our nations and seal off national borders from “others” without as they become increasingly aware of our dormant fears, our diversifying populations, and how interdependent we all are. This comes from a desire to limit vulnerabilities by walling ourselves off from the outside world.
The only problem: there is no “outside world.”
What happens to one of us affects us all, something that is increasingly clear from the spread of this virus.
Many of the current measures being taken by nations are as much to address the fear of its citizens as they are to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Responses like lying about the numbers, punishing whistleblowers, calling the virus “foreign,” or announcing sudden travel bans stoke the flames of fear even as they try to conceal it.
These measures are supposed to give people a false sense of security and deny responsibility — lest they be forced to do something about it.
Just as with climate change, our true challenge is in working together.
The myth of the nation and the individual is persistent but nature forces our hand, if not this time then the next time, by removing artificial barriers. The coronavirus was transmitted from one species to another, transgressing largely accepted barriers between species.
On the one hand, denying our interconnected nature might immediately offer false comfort — but it comes at an enormous cost. We cannot heal what we don’t reveal.
On the other hand, there is the initial fear that comes from accepting this truth — but it also offers us a path forward.
It allows us to catch the virus of fear.
We can cut through fear to leverage these challenging times to increase compassion, awareness and empathy. We can mitigate the impact of this virus on the world by taking nature’s cue and realizing that we’re only as strong as the most vulnerable among us.
We can meet this situation with love, and actually leverage this to increase our capacity for self-awareness, compassion and empathy across borders. Let’s remember, love is the only state that transcends these seemingly inescapable limitations of the world at the moment.