Being afraid is viewed as something negative by many people – they regard it as a sign of weakness. However, that is only the case if fear takes over and starts to dominate our lives. Fear can also protect us from danger and thus save lives – as we have seen during the current corona pandemic, for example. In today’s blog post, I explain the two sides of fear and I also look at anxiety related specifically to corona. In my next post, I will provide some concrete tips on how to overcome your fears.
In the Stone Age, it was advisable to not wander around in a completely relaxed manner: It was important to be aware of the risk that a saber-toothed tiger could come around the corner at any time. A degree of fear – combined with heightened awareness – helped our ancestors to be ready for ‘fight or flight’ at all times. Hence, fear can protect us from danger and even save our lives. This is because fear serves as a kind of warning light, alerting us when something is wrong and enabling us to act. In certain circumstances, it can enhance our performance, but it can also weaken us if it becomes our dominant emotion.
There are no longer any saber-toothed tigers around – at least, not in a physical sense. Nowadays, we worry about very different topics. Millions of people suffer from fears such as (non-exhaustive list):
- Fear of rejection: We all want to be appreciated and loved. Many people therefore worry that they might basically not live up to requirements in their professional or personal environment – or they may think that if they say no or contradict a person on one occasion, then that individual may no longer like them. Many people are therefore afraid of conflict and have difficulty in setting boundaries.
- Fear of failure, e.g. when sitting an exam, giving a speech or performing in public. More than 40% of all orchestral musicians suffer from stage fright, according to the findings of one survey. I know from experience that a fear of failure is also widespread in the business world.
- Fear of illness or pain: If you feel a pain in your chest, do you wonder if you are having a heart attack? A fear of illness or pain is also reflected by comments like: “I’m sure I’m going to get infected with corona” (more on this topic below). Or you may know that you need to see the dentist, but you keep finding reasons why you don’t have the time.
- Existential angst: Am I at risk of losing my job? Do I have enough money to survive?
- Fear of spiders, of flying or of small spaces: These fears of specific things are known as phobias (arachnophobia, aerophobia, claustrophobia, etc.).
A quarter of people develop pathological fears
As I explained, fear can serve a real purpose and may even be life-saving. However, around 25% of people develop fears that are no longer rationally justified by the actual risks they face. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses alongside depression. In such cases, fears dominate our lives, restrict our options, and sometimes even completely paralyze us. Affected individuals then cease to take decisions and withdraw entirely from everyday life.
A dangerous vicious circle can emerge in such cases: Our negative thoughts and worries lead to physical responses (e.g. palpitations, sweating, dizziness, sleeping disorders). These physical responses then reinforce our fears. Our negative thoughts and physical reactions feed off each other – culminating in a panic attack that is not triggered by any real threat.
In other words: Our fear about fear reinforces that fear – and the effects it has on us. This is because if we are constantly and intensively preoccupied with a specific situation, the symptoms appear more and more frequently.
Strong and varied fears relating to corona
This is the precise pattern that is being seen among many people in connection with corona. We are constantly reading negative reports about the sharp rise in infections and become increasingly afraid (which is, of course, justified in view of developments). A survey conducted in Germany showed that 11% of respondents were extremely afraid of becoming infected and 26% were very afraid.
The corona stress study carried out by the University of Basel revealed that at the start of July 2020, approximately 40% of respondents felt more stressed than they did prior to the crisis, despite the easing of lockdown measures at the time. The number of people suffering from severe depression in Switzerland had risen from 3% previously to 12% by the summer as a result of corona. The groups most seriously affected are women (due to the double burden of work and home schooling) and younger people, who feel that their freedom has been curtailed and their job prospects are now limited.
Hence, people are not just afraid that they themselves or their loved ones may become infected. The following factors make us especially afraid of corona:
- This is a new virus. Even now (November 2020), we don’t know everything about it. Although treatment methods have improved in recent months based on experience, many aspects of corona are not yet known and there is still no vaccine. And experts sometimes contradict one another, leading to even greater uncertainty among the general public.
- We cannot see the virus – and it is therefore permanently present in our daily lives in a diffuse way. Every person we meet could be a carrier – and every surface we touch could be covered with the virus.
- We don’t know how and when we will finally beat the virus (if this is even possible!). This means there is no clear end in sight.
- Lots of people are either totally exhausted because of their jobs or they have existential worries because their employer or their own business has seen order volumes decline.
- As a result of reduced contact with family and friends, people don’t have someone to turn to if they are finding life difficult. In addition, people who live on their own (whether young or old) feel lonely.
- Within my own private and professional circles, I have noted that fears about corona have intensified during the second wave in fall 2020. The virus is now much closer. I assume that we probably all personally know people who are/were affected – or we have had the virus ourselves. Back in the spring, the threat seemed less tangible for most people – despite all of the restrictions imposed on us.
In my next blog post, I will explain how you can ensure that your fears – relating to corona or in general – do not take over your life. This is possible because today’s fears are often not caused by real dangers but rather by situations that we perceive as negative – especially if bad experiences in the past mean that we once again expect something bad to happen now or we imagine worst-case scenarios. The good news is: We can learn to face our fears and to divert our thoughts. You can find out how this works in three weeks’ time.
© Claudia Kraaz