Why Fear Differs Among Us

During the pandemic, we differ in our descriptions and experiences of fear.

Posted Feb 23, 2021

The atmosphere of a pandemic activates wide-ranging emotional responses. This post focuses on fear and some aspects of distress, although anger, disgust, and shame triggered by the pandemic also illustrate our divergent emotional responses.

When a stimulus is unrelenting, as the pandemic has been, the repetitive activation of emotion creates a mood. A dominant mood during the pandemic seems to reflect a persistent emotional state of co-mingled fear and distress. Generally speaking, fear motivates an urgency to take some action to avoid harm. In contrast, distress is felt as agitation, annoyance, or tension—a constant and unpleasant sensation that may arise from a variety of internal and external sources. When we are distressed, we are motivated to anticipate what will go wrong and then try to solve the problem effectually.[i] States of anxiety occur when fear and distress are activated in tandem. Similarly, an emotional state of stress results when distress becomes activated in response to fear, where fear is very prominent in the mix.[ii]

It is important to consider that the emotions we experience in the present have histories that have been compressed into mini-theories. This scripting helps us make sense of regularity and change in our lives, forms the set of rules by which we live, and provides information concerning ways of being in the world.[iii]  Scripts are much like a reflex that is coded into implicit memory and thus operate automatically and mechanically.[iv]  Depending on how well we learn, scripted responses can either help or hinder us as we interpret, evaluate, and make predictions in our experiences. Thus, people vary in their descriptions and experiences of fear during the pandemic, based on the scripts formed through a lifetime of learning. 

In consciousness, feeling and thinking always arise together.[v]  So if we hear a television broadcast that informs us of various mutations of the virus that may be resistant to current immunizations, our thoughts and feelings about it will emerge simultaneously. Cognitions that arise along with an emotion are necessary to make information more specific. In many cases, an emotion will amplify how we feel about something, but what we think alongside it may be conjecture on our part. The thoughts we apply to something we fear do not tell us what we are actually afraid of but instead provide the best information our mind has available. In fact, often we are unaware of what we actually fear.

Some people may wear masks during the pandemic as though they are fearful, yet they may not experience fear. In contrast, behind their masks, others may experience intense fear triggered by imagined scenarios magnifying what they feel. Life experiences and interactions with others will alter our biologically-based emotions and, through script formation, turn them into an emotional experience that is unique to each of us.

Emotions may be scripted in ways that disguise them, particularly when the scenes that trigger them become familiar to us. As we progress through months of living with a pandemic, we may enter a store with our mask in place but may do so without experiencing the intensity of fear or distress we felt when the pandemic began. Although we may wear a mask and social distance as though we experience fear, we may not feel it. Such scripts are referred to as an “as if” script.[vi]Fear of contracting the virus and distress about leaving one’s home was present at some time before the scripting took place. Over time, our emotional system manages the fear, but the fear will return, however, in unusual circumstances, such as when a relative or close friend contracts the virus. 

How we manage fear has a lot to do with our lifetime of responses to the emotion. When fear becomes amplified by imagery from past experiences, we may become overly cautious, even to the point of paranoia, about our safety and well-being. For example, some people will not only sterilize anything that enters their home, but they will constantly disinfect their home as though the virus is lurking in the woodwork. In contrast, others are cavalier in response to the possibility of infection, justifying their security on current research that supports the unlikelihood of surface transmission. 

When we are afraid, what we think is different for each of us depending on our prior experiences of fear.[vii] If we had parents who were terrified of becoming infected by germs that live everywhere, then, of course, the pandemic will amplify our pre-existing fears. In such circumstances, that which is too much becomes now urgently too much.[viii] A mood state of chronic fear that we have learned in our childhood will magnify every situation as frightening merely because it has been encountered in the context of fear.[ix] Fear races our engine and speeds up our pulse and respiration, at the same time amplifying attention and cognition at a high rate, bringing reminiscences of frightening scenes, memories of dreadful situations, or unsolved terrors of the past that produce increasing amounts of fear.[x] As we develop from childhood to adulthood, we fill the warehouse of our memories with incidents of fear and its triggers.[xi]

Approaching fear with interest and an awareness of how our emotions have been scripted by our past enables us to become curious about what is going on and how we should best protect ourselves. Moreover, we can recognize our differences as a source of interest rather than a target for annoyance. 

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[i] Tomkins, S. S. (1995). The Quest for Primary Motives: Biography and Autobiography of an Idea.  In V. Demos, Ed., Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, New York: Cambridge University Press, 47.

[ii] Nathanson, D. Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton. 

[iii] Tomkins, S. S. (1995). Script Theory.” In E. V. Demos, Ed., Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. New York: Cambridge University Press, 334.

[iv] ibid., 387.

[v] Tomkins, S. S. (1995). The Quest for Primary Motives: Biography and Autobiography of an Idea.  In V. Demos, Ed., Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins, New York: Cambridge University Press, 59. 

[vi] Tomkins, S. S. (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness, Vol. 3. The negative affects: Anger and fear. Springer Publishing Co.

[vii] Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] ibid.

[x] ibid.

[xi] Ibid.