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The experience of fear can be both devastating and life-saving; its intensity can range from mild anxiety to blinding dread. And all possible levels of fear are being experienced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Was this fearful reaction unavoidable? After all, early reports of the virus were frightening, with its mysterious spread and virulent effect, particularly on the elderly. In spite of the experts who were unwilling to admit they simply didn’t know what to expect, they reacted by initiating extreme rules and mandates. People were afraid to leave their homes, unwilling to mingle with other people and do some of the most basic errands that had become central to their lives.
Because they were afraid to die. And for many, the fear still dominates their lives.
Dr. Marc Siegel, who is a Clinical Professor of Medicine and a practicing internist at NYU Langone Medical Center, as well as a contributor for Fox News, shared the following about the nature of fear:
I have been studying the massive controlling impact of fear commands on the human brain for many years. When you experience fear, your brain’s amygdala signals the release of powerful stress hormones (fight or flight) which links to a deeply engrained fear memory system. A cycle of fear, once activated, is very hard to break.
Dr. Siegel validates the public’s initial reaction to the pandemic, but also points out the exaggerations that have been promoted:
In fact, throughout the pandemic fear of going maskless has been exaggerated and manipulated by politicians and the media. Though masks clearly have been shown to have a value in preventing spread of this aerosolized airborne virus especially in close quarters, the obsessive focus on masks has led to fear-driven masks of obedience, even though they have often been worn improperly. And now that even the overly cautious CDC has acknowledged that you don’t need to wear a mask in most instances once you have been vaccinated, nevertheless, fears of relinquishing masks persist, and many people describe removing them as feeling ‘naked.’
Even for those who know rationally that Dr. Siegel’s observations are true, many people simply can’t release or work through the crippling fear that has damaged their psyches.
Unfortunately, many people are at a loss about how to move forward in their lives. As a result of this prevalent fear, a new psychological term has entered the lexicon–coronaphobia:
After analyzing nearly 500 studies that addressed the alarm and panic people were feeling during the pandemic, researchers defined coronaphobia as ‘an excessive triggered response of fear of contracting the virus causing COVID-19, leading to accompanied excessive concern over physiological symptoms, significant stress about personal and occupational loss, increased reassurance and safety seeking behaviors, and avoidance of public places and situations, causing marked impairment in daily life functioning.’
Many of us will roll our eyes and grumble about another “flavor-of-the-day” definition that will be used as an excuse for people to refuse to get on with our lives. But for those of us who have lived through periods of great fear, or feel trapped in the anxiety of the coronavirus, it’s no joking matter.
Certainly, there are parts of the population who are experiencing only a low-level anxiety, as a result of keeping up-to-date on the most reliable data, have received their vaccinations, and have returned to a relatively normal life. Others, however, may feel that their fear has elevated to the point where their lives are seriously limited and difficult to manage. Lily Brown, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, explained extreme anxiety in this way:
Oftentimes, what happens when people have anxiety disorders is their anxiety starts to spill over so that it increasingly becomes more and more challenging to follow through on their obligations and get their needs met.’
Again, most people are feeling anxiety during the pandemic. But if you start noticing that you’re having a hard time meeting your commitments or completing must-do tasks because you’re panicked about catching the virus (or worried that loved ones will get sick), these might be indications that you have coronaphobia—and professional support to help in manage the anxiety could be effective.
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For several reasons, I’ve found that, although I was very worried early on, I wasn’t overly frightened about the virus. At 71, I had some concerns and took precautions until I could receive my vaccination. Now I’m in the process of living life as fully as I can.
But I have a number of concerns about those people who are letting their fear dominate their lives. First, they are imposing their fears on others, making demands, and voicing expectations that they hope will alleviate their own concerns; the likelihood is, they will not feel less fearful and may temporarily feel empowered by attacking others. In particular, mask-wearing has become the cudgel of choice. Whether people have had their vaccinations or not, whether they have been told of the very small possibility that their children may catch the virus, whether the effectiveness of the vaccine on variants has been explained to them—they remain captive to their fear and a rational approach to reassuring them is likely not to work.
In addition, many of those who may be overtaken by their fear are in powerful positions, such as governors, state administrators, and even high-level government bureaucrats; they have rationalized their demands for their constituencies; whether they are determined to impose requirements to demonstrate their power, or whether they can’t get past their own fear, they are terrorizing parts of our population and enraging others.
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Somehow, we have to find a way to get past these debilitating fears that are rampant in our country. We have legitimate, serious problems that we must fight and we can’t expend our energy on meaningless rules and futile practices. Those people, whether our neighbors, colleagues, and friends, who insist on accommodating their fear instead of finding a way to work through it, have the potential for creating even more emotional chaos at every level of society. How will the severe limitations that these folks put on their own lives affect the country as a whole? Will they go back to their jobs? Will they raise children who are overly fearful? Will they isolate themselves in order to feel safe? And what about our leaders who believe that their fears are legitimate, or behave as if they do?
I’m at a loss on how we can move forward. Do we simply hope that people overcome or work through their fear? Is there anything else we can do? What do you think?
[The photo is by Melanie Wasser at unsplash.com.]Published in