Since the start of the pandemic, the bulk of messaging about COVID has been extremely fear-based. We’ve read scary headline after scary headline as we have kept tabs on record-high case counts, death rates and hospitalization rates. We have consumed stories of people’s life-threatening battles with COVID and long COVID.
As a result, many of us have become exceedingly fearful about navigating life in the pandemic. And for a valid reason: This has been a scary 22 months. The coronavirus is new and ubiquitous, and, for a long time, we didn’t have ways to effectively mitigate the risk, said Dr. Lucy McBride, a practicing internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C. There absolutely has been a reason to be afraid — to a degree.
Fear has a very important role in our lives: It keeps us safe by teaching our brains to avoid dangers and threats. In a way, it also helps people understand the risks associated with COVID so they can make informed decisions about what is and isn’t safe.
But hitting people with too much fear can backfire. Excessive fear can reduce our tolerance for risk, it can make us hyperalert and hypervigilant, and it can cause us to make decisions that don’t optimally serve our mental and physical health. The key is finding the delicate equilibrium.
How fear influences our behaviors
Our brains are devoted to learning about the world, said Dr. Greg Siegle, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and translational sciences at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. If we are rewarded for a good thing, our brains continue to seek out the good thing. If we are punished for a bad thing, our brains become fearful of the bad thing so that we learn to avoid it.
“Fear is very good at creating avoidance,” Siegle said. “If you want somebody to avoid something, you make them afraid of it.”
Of course, for many people — especially certain immunocompromised individuals — it makes sense to be fearful of COVID. The risk isn’t zero, and it probably never will be. Vaccines have significantly improved outcomes in immunocompromised individuals who get COVID, but those with weakened immune systems are experiencing higher rates of breakthrough infections, and some of those can turn severe. Their vulnerability greatly depends on what local transmission is like, and whether the people around them are vaccinated ― two things that are largely out of their control.
But when we become absorbed by fear, our brains prioritize that fear and we start constantly scanning for threats with wide eyes. When this happens, we stop processing other important healthy behaviors that might seem more optional — things like digesting food, sleeping and connecting with loved ones.
“Particularly, at this moment, with a ubiquitous virus that is highly transmissible, fear isn’t shielding us from coronavirus,” McBride said. “It’s actually, for many people, limiting their ability to meet their broader human needs.”
When our fear systems are chronically over-activated, our physical and mental health can deteriorate. That’s why it’s important to walk the right line when it comes to fear, particularly fear-based thoughts that are within our control. Previous research has found that when people are overwhelmed with fear, they become anxious and engage in more destructive behaviors like smoking, drinking and unhealthy eating. Being overwhelmed with fear can even demotivate us to seek out the rewarding things in life, according to Siegle. Plus, when it comes to public health messaging, too much fear erodes trust in public heath.
It’s crucial to be intentional and nuanced when communicating the risks associated with COVID so that people don’t dismiss what’s going on or become overly afraid. (It’s worth noting that how much fear we can tolerate is also very individual and cultural. Some people, and cultures, can handle and comfortably live with more fear and arousal than others.)
“Fear is natural and important — but maybe it shouldn’t take us over and be the primary ruling thing in our lives,” Siegle said.
“Fear is very good at creating avoidance. If you want somebody to avoid something, you make them afraid of it.”
How to manage fear while still being responsible and safe
If you want to develop a more rational and less fear-based approach, Siegle said you’ll want to look at your risk assessment in a nuanced, evidence-based way. Be intentional about where you get your news and information: Avoid sensationalist headlines, look for the facts, and try not to solely read articles that reinforce your fear.
Siegle also recommended using the microCOVID risk calculator, which helps people estimate their personal risk for various activities in a specific, nuanced way. You punch in your location, vaccination status, and the activity you’re interested in doing ― including with whom and for how long. Then, you determine how much risk you’re willing to assume (some, none or a lot) and the calculator provides you with an idea of what living with that risk level looks like.
Similarly, McBride’s biggest piece of advice was to find a trusted doctor who can translate all of the information about COVID and apply it to your unique situation.
Ultimately, you want to find meaningful activities you can engage in, with modifications when necessary, that can bring you comfort, joy and solace, said Nathaniel Ivers, an associate professor in the department of counseling at Wake Forest University who specializes in terror management theory.
It’s important to stay connected to others, Ivers said, and COVID has created so much isolation that has left us alone with our thoughts.
“Try not to sit in the thoughts and the emotions by yourself ― really try to bounce them off of other people because, in so doing, you’ll receive feedback on how reasonable and rational those ideas are,” he said.
Mindfulness can also be extremely helpful in bringing us back to the present moment. When we are fearful, we’re oftentimes future-oriented and thinking about all the things that could happen.
“Mindfulness requires us to be present-focused, non-reactive and non-judgmental about the things that are happening around us and within us,” Ivers said. It helps us focus on what’s actually happening, rather than worrying about what could.
Finally, if your fear has led to debilitating depression and anxiety, ask for help and find a good therapist or psychiatrist. Living with fear — especially in the time of COVID — is natural and normal, but there are helpful therapies and medications available if fear has become overwhelming and is negatively interfering with the quality of your life.
“Fear is human, and fear is important,” Siegle said. “We can respect it and we live with it, but we don’t have to be ruled by it only.”