Fear has always been around. What is peculiar is that the emotional state activating fear is also involved in positive reactions, such as happiness or excitement. What changes is the wiring.
This is a view of Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro on new year’s eve: thousands of people dressed in white gather to salute the new year and watch firework. This tradition may or may not survive the COVID 19 pandemic now that mask-wearing, social distancing and hygienic precautions are everywhere.
What is the relation between this photograph and the title? Fear. Behaviors changed in 2020 around the world and the most striking change noticed since this onset of the pandemic is the omnipresence of fear. It is everywhere in people’s faces, in their behaviors and their actions, which become aggressive, impatient, intolerant or fearful.
What is fear?
“Fear may be as old as life on earth. It is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence. Fear may be as simple as a cringe of an antenna in a snail that is touched, or as complex as existential anxiety in a human.” 1
1 Javanbakht, Arash & Saab, Lina. Oct. 27, 2017. What happens in the brain when we feel fear? Smithsonian Magazine.
Fear affects everyone
The bad thing about fear is: DO NOT try to defeat it. The good thing is that you can change the effect fear has on you. Fear is a human emotion emerging to protect us from danger. The trait peculiarity is that the emotional state activating fear is also involved in positive reactions, such as happiness or excitement. What varies is the wiring that is influenced by the context.
Two examples with different outcome
- A walk on the edge of a cliff can cause a sudden acceleration of the heartbeat in the face of imminent danger: this causes an immediate reaction of retreat as a protective measure.
- In the context of a pandemic, behaviors are progressively modified by an omnipresent fear, as is the case with COVID 19. The excess of information, whose objective is initially preventive, transforms our reality into a minefield where fear settles in.
How to tame fear
Remember that fear activates similar emotional states as joy or excitement. Therefore, by analyzing the emotional state fear causes, one way to progressively tame fear is to dismantle it in a conscious effort. The sole awareness of fear emerging triggers a response mechanism, allowing a person to control it: the analytic process decreases the pace of the effects until it is no longer a threat.
When fear emerges, it is advisable to stop your activity and take a break by breathing deeply to interrupt the flow of thoughts that tends to accelerate. To do this, the most effective method is to control your breathing, by breathing in and out deeply several times in a row.
This approach allows you to rationalize the fear by dismantling it, while becoming aware of its presence, and allowing you to confront the danger initially announced.
Three steps to tame fear
It is advisable to follow a rational approach to tame fear and minimize its effects on our body and our ability to think. We begin by analyzing the origin of the fear, before observing its effects in order to take the necessary steps to reorganize our thoughts.
1. Find out what causes fear:
– What triggered fear: environment, person, circumstance?
– Is this a justified reaction? Confirm facts before being alarmed.
– Stay objective, away from negativity.
2. Observe how fear makes you feel:
– Watch your body language: rapid heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, upset stomach, dry mouth.
– Watch your thoughts: rushing thoughts, negative thoughts, impulsive behavior.
3. Manage the feelings:
– Take a break and use breathing techniques to slow your heart rate.
– Evaluate the situation and possible risks.
– Analyze options to move forward safely.
The situation of fear caused by the pandemic
More recently, the Kaiser Family Foundation published an article in June 2020 called “The Nature and Treatment of Pandemic-Related Psychological Distress” stating that 56% of people felt the pandemic affected their wellbeing: “people are living in a chronic state of fear of contracting the virus”. 2
It is certain that, when analyzing the evolution of the pandemic since its beginnings, the tendency is to panic rather than to keep calm, a behavior exacerbated by the media on the lookout for alarming news.
The negative effects of the virus are undeniable and it is up to us to modify our behavior in order to adapt to the context with the least harm.
So how does one find motivation to change a behavior?
2 Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera, K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., et al. 21 August 2020. The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. San Francisco: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Behavior change to tame fear
The omnipresence of fear in our societies is a factor affecting us all and the COVID 19 pandemic exacerbated mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
Once again, it is essential to rationalize fear in order to control it:
1. An action plan is in place to overcome fear: analyze the origin of the fear afflicting you, including its effects and consequences. It is a conscious effort that improves with practice.
2. The rational approach allows the situation to be stabilized while minimizing risks.
3. It is possible to move forward only when the negative effects of fear are under control.
The control of fear for the bullfighter and the astronaut
Fear appears suddenly and catches us off-guard because of the surprise effect and the danger. Here are two examples of professions where mastering fear is essential for survival.
In the case of bullfighting, the bullfighter faces a 1,500 kilogram beast and manages to master his fear while taking deadly risks: his art is to provoke the beast while avoiding it. His only option is to anticipate the bull’s actions to avoid them, dodging the beast instead of facing it 3. This sport requires extensive practice.
For the astronaut, the responsibility of a mission in space includes unforeseen events that have been analyzed and practiced so they no longer cause unexpected fear in a hostile environment. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tells us how he overcame the fear of suddenly going blind during a mission in space: the practice and anticipation of all the details of the mission left no room for the unexpected. The result was a successful mission guided by NASA from Houston, while being completely blind in space.
Fear control during an audit
In my book Journal of a social auditor, chapter 18 describes the difficulties encountered during a social responsibility audit when the plant manager was particularly resistant to the audit procedures. It took a great deal of personal control to get the information I needed in a particularly unfriendly environment. The methodology and tools used during the audit are provided at the end of the book. According to Dr. Lara Boyd, our own behavior is the major factor of change: practice is essential but it takes time, and you have to do the work.
Most professions require self-control, confirming that fear can be tamed. It is a matter of awareness and practice. The American author Napoleon Hill said in the early 20th century that “fear is only a state of mind and a state of mind can be controlled and directed”. The feeling of anxiety that invades a person can be controlled if one manages to master the apprehension and the fear of danger. Gabriel Terrier refers to fear as “one of the worst enemies of success”. It is therefore impossible to succeed personally and professionally without learning to understand and control our instincts so that they do not harm us.