What Fear and Anxiety Can and Cannot Do for (and With) You
The anxious mind and the pandemic
Posted Apr 25, 2020
...Fear replied, "My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved and you do whatever I say. If you don't do what I tell you, I have no power. "
Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart
'Fear limits' and 'Anxiety doesn’t tell the truth'.
My phone sends me these reminders at random times, along with a bunch of other ones—my personal little self-help life hack.
Right now, under the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us feel afraid and anxious. These emotions are a part of our biologically programmed reaction to a threat. But they are also unpleasant (sometimes downright debilitating). In a society where there is a lot of focus on being optimistic, thinking constructively, being brave (add your own version of toxic positivity), it is hard to see any value in feelings such as fear and anxiety. And so, it may be tempting to search for recipes to make them go away. But what if instead, we looked at the wisdom behind these emotions and what they can and cannot do for (and with) us?
Fear and anxiety are a part of the stress response, which in humans is a complex interplay between emotions, thoughts, and physiological processes. The main function of the stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is to keep us away from danger. It mobilizes our energy, both mental and physical, so we can either escape from the threat or cope with it. We think and react faster, are more alert and awake, and engage in behaviors that will keep us safe.
When you think about fear and anxiety this way, you can see that they play an important role in keeping you in balance, making you a reasonably cautious human being rather than a reckless psychopath. Right now, for example, these very emotions will help ensure that you follow the official guidelines regarding social distancing and are prepared for the scenario where you can’t leave the house.
But let’s assume you are following the guidelines, are prepared, and your basic safety needs are met (if they weren’t met, you would probably have better things to do than reading Psychology Today). If one keeps listening to fear and anxiety beyond this point, unproductive, irrational behaviors may result. (That inexplicable chase for toilet paper?)
While we cannot choose whether to feel fear and anxiety, we can learn to relate to them differently. When we know what these emotions do to our ability to think, judge, and evaluate, we are better equipped to take our thoughts with a grain of salt and not let them control us.
How the anxious mind works
Here is a paradox. On the one hand, fear and anxiety feel like they speed up your thinking. Perhaps, this mental agitation is an attempt to escape, an attempt to think our way to greater safety. (It is a misguided attempt in a situation you cannot control, as you just get stuck in an endless thought loop).
On the other hand, the surge of stress hormones that accompanies intense anxiety and fear diminishes our access to higher-level cognitive processes (Starcke, Wiesen, Trotzke and Brand, 2016). When the brain is on stress hormones, seeing perspective, out-of-the-box thinking, and creativity may be temporarily unavailable to us, impairing our abilities to solve problems and make decisions.
Furthermore, fear, anxiety, and stress also change our perceptions so that we interpret ambiguous situations negatively and expect the worst (Mathews and MacLeod, 2005; Steinman, Smyth, Bucks, MacLeod, and Teachman, 2013). Hello, catastrophic thinking! It makes sense since anxiety and fear are there to keep you safe.
This very distortion of thinking under stress makes it challenging to follow suggestions to examine the validity of your thoughts and replace them with more accurate ones in order to feel better. To win an argument with your anxious mind using logic and reason, you have to have reason and logic available to you in the first place! In addition, your anxious mind is downplaying any facts that contradict the catastrophic interpretation. For instance, when you are overwhelmed by fear of dying from coronavirus, the fact that the chance of that is “only” 1 percent will hardly be soothing. The only number that the anxious mind will gladly accept is a 100 percent guarantee, which no one ever can provide.
What you can do if you are prone to fear and anxiety
You can’t choose your emotions. You can’t choose your thoughts. Nor can you reason them away. But there are still things you can do to achieve greater peace of mind under the pandemic.
- Limit your consumption of news. Ask yourself how often you need to be updated to stay safe, find the sources that you trust, and dismiss everything else.
- Take care of your body. When you meet your body’s basic needs, you help your brain stay calm. Have you already noticed that the world is a much friendlier place once you’ve finally eaten?
- Get adequate sleep. Sufficient sleep is very important for emotional stability, especially the kind of sleep we get in the second half of the night when we dream (Goldstein and Walker, 2014). If the quarantine gives you an opportunity to sleep in, do not hesitate to take it!
- Let your thoughts be and let them go. No need to take them all so seriously. Remind yourself that, in trying to protect you, anxiety and fear tell a lot of lies, and therefore you don’t always need to pay attention. You can’t choose your thoughts just like you can’t choose today’s playlist on your favorite radio channel, but if the song is not so great, you can lower the volume and go do something else.
Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2014). The role of sleep in emotional brain function. Annual review of clinical psychology, 10, 679-708.
Mathews, A., & MacLeod, C. (2005). Cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 167-195.
Starcke, K., Wiesen, C., Trotzke, P., & Brand, M. (2016). Effects of acute laboratory stress on executive functions. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 461.
Steinman, S. A., Smyth, F. L., Bucks, R. S., MacLeod, C., & Teachman, B. A. (2013). Anxiety-linked expectancy bias across the adult lifespan. Cognition & emotion, 27(2), 345-355.
Chödrön, P. (1997).When Things Fall Apart. Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston: Shambhala.