“So first let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself… nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address
So there I was… hanging off the edge, behind-first, staring down into a hole in the ground about as wide as my house. My heels dug into the earthen ledge as I felt the tension of the rope pulling at my waist and holding me in place. We were on a spelunking (caving) adventure. Ropes were strategically fastened to trees, harnesses fastened to ropes, and my body strapped in a harness. I had been rappelling since my high school years, but never into a 150-foot vertical cave in the middle of the Tennessee wilderness.
All facts pointed to the assurance of safety, security and success: the friends I was with were trained to do this in the military; all knots, harnesses and other gear were checked and rechecked; and my buddy was at the bottom of the cave below me hanging on to my rope, ready to cinch it down and “catch” me should I slip. (And besides—he made it down safely; certainly I would, too… right?)
And yet, there were still the nagging what ifs in my mind. What if that rope snaps? What if a knot comes undone? And even, what if a squirrel leapt from out of nowhere, landed on my harness and chewed the straps away, causing me to fall into nothingness?
And it was the what ifs that kept me stuck, paralyzed, on the edge of that cave for what seemed like hours (really, it was a few minutes), petrified to take that first step to descend into the cave.
Fear has a funny way of making a person think the most irrational thoughts. And as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused life to slam on its brakes, fear has certainly done a real number for many people. What happens when the pandemic has you so afraid that you can’t seem to leave the house?
Good Fear and Bad Fear
Fear isn’t always bad. There is a good kind of fear. Good fear protects us; it’s rational, valuable, and tells us how to accurately assess a risk. Good fear says, “Hey, that’s a deep hole in the ground. Better be sure your rope is tied correctly, your gear is checked, and your buddy down there has your back (er… rather, your rope).”
Bad fear does not help us. It jumps straight to the worse-case scenario based on irrational conclusions. Bad fear says, “Hey, that’s a deep hole in the ground. Your rope will probably snap and your buddy below has probably taken off to grab a burger. It’s best if you go home, lock the door, hide in your room and never ever think about caves again…“
Bad fear started out as good fear, but quickly turned irrational, dysfunctional, petrifying and therefore valueless. It’s junk fear—good fear gone bad, like a mild-mannered comic book scientist turned supervillain.
And just like any true villain, bad fear doesn’t help us at all. It hinders us from a more fulfilling life. And at its worst, fear can be so irrational that it can cause us to react in ways that are actually harmful to us.
Irrational Is the Key Word
★ The difference between good fear and bad fear is the weight of the information each is based on. ★
Good fear is based on good, solid facts from credible sources. It seeks the right amount of precautions to take while still being able to function. And so you have to know who you’re listening to. Health and safety precautions taken from the CDC are much weightier than from fake-news outlets or crazy Uncle Joe who’s stockpiled ammo and canned beans in his backyard bunker.
Bad fear is based on the irrational, the sensational and the worst-case scenario (refer to Uncle Joe above). Bad fear makes us believe we have all the information we need in order to anticipate a future full of dread and terror.
What Bad Fear Does to Us
Fear works in a way that, when we sense a threat, our body releases hormones that shut down the functions not needed for survival. It sharpens the functions that might help us survive, such as increased heart rate and more blood flow to the muscles (so that we can, for example, heighten our awareness or run faster).
This is great for single, isolated incidents of threat, such as seeing a snake or standing on a high ledge. However, prolonged, chronic fear wreaks havoc on our body and brain.
Research has shown us that it weakens our immune system, leaving us more susceptible to sickness. (Think about the irony here: Irrational anxiety and fear of the COVID-19 virus could actually increase our chances of catching it.) Bad fear can cause cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems, and can lead to accelerated aging and even premature death.
Bad fear also hijacks our brain processes that help us regulate our emotions, read non-verbal cues and think before we act. Therefore, it can have a very negative impact on our relationships.
When fear is based on irrational assumptions, it tends to keep churning out the dread. It can also have some nasty consequences for our health.
Fear Gone Bad Back to Good
Knowing the dangers of bad fear is a good start to turning bad fear around. Here are some other tips:
- Listen to credible sources for information. Be picky about who you listen to. There is a lot of sensationalism, and armchair COVID-19 experts abound out there. Ignore these voices and pay attention to the advice of experts such as the CDC, physicians and scientists. Be careful how much time you spend immersing yourself in information-digging. An unhealthy preoccupation in fact-finding can feed fear rather than alleviate it.
- Carefully assess what you see, experience and feel. Irrational fear can make us question every little sniffle, sneeze or cough we notice in ourselves and others, sending us down a spiral of unneeded worry. Pay attention to the symptoms and warning signs given by the experts, as well as the level of risk for your age group. And if you have a logical concern, refer to your physician.
- Practice self-care. Be sure you are doing intentional things to keep your mind and body healthy. Being physically active, practicing mindfulness and getting enough rest helps alleviate anxiety and boost the feel-good hormones in our brains. This helps us to think more clearly when weighing reason against irrationality.
- Know that this is a process. Overcoming any kind of fear takes time, and it’s often done in small steps. Give yourself patience and grace. Over time, reason will trump the irrational.
- If you find that your fear is causing you to move toward harmful behaviors such as drinking or using drugs, or that it’s moving you away from basic necessary functions such as eating, personal hygiene or getting basic work done, consider seeking help. There are many professionals who are offering remote counseling services.
By the way… I made it down into the cave safe and sound. Knots stayed tied and no strap-gnawing squirrels appeared. Why? Because that was just unreasonable. Bad fear does not have to prevent you from diving into a fulfilling life, even in the midst of a pandemic.