‘El miedo es gratis’ (Fear is free) – Old Spanish proverb.
Most people in Spain have grown up hearing that. Fear is free. What that means is that fear is free, as in, it doesn’t cost any money. But it turns out, they weren’t 100% right, were they? No, you don’t need to pay money to be afraid, but Fear,it turns out, is very costly. It has a high psychological cost, physical cost, and a financial cost, since, at the very least, it stops you from doing things and taking chances.
Today we see the whole world gripped by fear. A fear with a name but without a face. A fear that has been going on since the beginning of the year. A fear that has become imperative we get rid of immediately. Why? Because prolonged fear causes a type of stress that can become really hard to ditch.
THE ROLE OF FEAR
In psychology we see fear as a basic and ever-present emotion. A certain amount of fear is normal, even good for us. It helps us to survive, by having an inbuilt, rapid mechanism to detect danger, and therefore allow us to take action to prevent harm. It is the foundation of our fight or flight response.
THE PROBLEM WITH FEAR
The problem is that if our fear response goes into hyper drive, it can cause harm itself. It can paralyze us and stop us from taking actions that would be beneficial to our wellbeing. It begins to control us rather than serve us. And when fear is prolonged, the potential for serious mental distress in the form of mental disorder is greatly increased.
In mental health, we know that all mental illnesses are founded in, or at the very least, accompanied by, a large amount of fear. This means that when someone you love experiences mental health distress, of any kind and severity, you can be fairly certain that at some level, fear is involved. Fear may be lurking just under the surface, or it may permeate every aspect of their life and their decision making.But, how specifically?
HOW FEAR IMPACTS US
Decision Making – A fearful person cannot make good decisions, the decisions that they normally would make, because fear impairs and interrupts good cognitive function. For example, the research shows that when we are stressed, we are less likely to choose good healthy foods. So much for dieting when you’re afraid of being disliked! Another common response to fear is to delay making any decision, because we are too worried about what the consequences might be if we make the wrong one!
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself” – Franklin D Roosevelt
Risk Averse Bias – Importantly, fear also creates a bias in the way we interpret information. It leads us to focus too heavily on the risks, rather than making an objective analysis of all the facts of a situation. We can easily appreciate this in sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). OCD is a disorder where the person becomes fearful of dying, either of unseen microorganisms like bacteria, viruses or germs, or from physical accident, injury or misadventure. People with OCD are not able to make objective analyses of situations and have to be helped, through therapy, to change their association with fear of pathogens. In a work context, in organizations where there is fear, you see groups become risk averse, which is not helpful for growth and development, and sometimes causes the exact result that the executives were afraid of, and trying to avoid.
Problem Solving –It’s also well known that fear disrupts our capacity for problem solving. We become tunnel visioned on our main concern, rather than expanding our thinking to discover and consider a wide range of solutions. In fact, often people tend to oversimplify the problem and the solution to the problem. The solution is often emotional, rather than logical, and does not stand up to scrutiny.
Undermining success – Fear not only impairs our capacity to solve problems and to make good, effective decisions, it also boycotts our chances for success in life. For example, ever heard of the term ‘fear of failure’? Well, we now understand this differently.We now know that often, people that say that they are afraid of failure, when they dig in deeper and explore it, they are also fearful of succeeding. How is that possible? How can anyone be afraid of succeeding? Simple, think of your life right now, as it is. If you were 100% successful and achieved amazing dreams and goals, how many of the people that are around you now, would still like you then? Or would they be envious? For most people, if they were to significantly improve their life, fear would need to take a back seat.
Can you see why fear would not always be useful in a work context?
Today, as a collective, we are experiencing a new kind of fear, which is unique in a sense. This is a fear that is being drummed up, encouraged by governments, some scientists, and the media. Though it may not be the intention, we are reminded to be fearful of others, and fearful for our safety. These reminders to be afraid are conveyed in somewhat subtle ways by the masks we must wear in many places, the visual signs we see alerting us to social distance, the announcements and conversations we hear, and in many other indirect ways. There doesn’t seem to be a reprieve from these (sometimes) subtle, yet constant reminders.
Whether it is warranted or not, is not the question here. The fact remains that we know that fear causes stress, and that long term stress causes an untold number of physical and psychological illnesses.
According to the American Institute of Stress, 120000 people die every year as a direct result of workplace stress. Chronic stress is also linked to the 6 leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, respiratory deaths, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
The idea that fear causes physical damage is not new knowledge. In fact, there’s a lovely Sufi story that illustrates the harm fear brings:
“A caravan leader in the middle of the desert crossed the plague cloud on his way. – Where are you going like that, asked the chief? – To Baghdad! I have a thousand lives to take, the plague replied without stopping! A few weeks later, the leader of the caravan again crossed the cloud of plague. – ‘Hey!’, said the head of the caravan, ‘I’m back from Baghdad! It was not a thousand but ten thousand people that you took away!’ – ‘I only killed a thousand people as I was ordered’, retorted the plague! ‘The others were scared to death!’”
Being literally scared to death may sound a bit extreme, but it brings us to an interesting phenomenon that was discovered in the 1800’s, called ‘Voodoo Death’.
Voodoo death is a sudden, unexplained death resulting from spells, sorcery, or curse. From a psychological perspective we may explain it as resulting from belief in the power of those spells, sorcery or curses.
In his article ´Voodoo Death´, Walter Bradford Cannon shares numerous examples from traditional cultures, where there have been instances of death observed in these conditions:
- In the Tupinambas Indians of South America, there have been cases observed of fright induced death, following the prediction or condemnation by a chief or medicine man with the reputation of having supernatural power.
- In Brown´s New Zealand and its Aborigines, there is an account of a Maori woman. who, having eaten some fruit, was told that it had been taken from a tabooed place. She exclaimed that the sanctity of the chief had been profaned, and that his spirit would kill her. This incident occurred in the afternoon; the next day about 12 o’clock she was dead.
- Australian University Professors have observed that from time to time the natives of the Australian bush do die as a result of a bone being pointed at them, and that such death may not be associated with any of the ordinary lethal injuries.
In today’s terms we may not call it ‘Voodoo Death’ anymore, but we have studied the science, and we now have good evidence for what we now call Somatoform Disorders, and the Nocebo Effect. We can categorically say that fear can, and does injure, harm and, in the most extreme cases, kill.It can be directly, as in the case of the examples above, or indirectly, as in the case of people believing themselves sick and dying of iatrogenesis or side effects of treatment.
THE NOCEBO EFFECT
Almost everyone has heard of the placebo effect. We see the placebo effect when people have a positive improvement in response to a substance, idea, thought or situation, simply because they believe it to be ‘true’ but without it actually having any active ingredient or proof. Their mind, the unconscious part, has taken control of the body and made it respond ‘as if’ the substance or idea is a matter of fact.
The placebo effect is the most studied effect in the history of science since it’s used as the standard to produce relatively safe medicines. What most people don’t know so well is its close cousin – the nocebo effect. That’s where a person believes something benign is actually malignant to them. In this case, the person starts feeling all the symptoms and often displaying the signs of the particular ailment they believe they have, although they don’t have it. For example, ever googled some kind of strange illness and then you start feeling some of the symptoms explained? How did that happen? Well, you tapped into your nocebo. Of course, most people stop just in time of making themselves actually sick, or do they?
HEADING INTO 2021
Think of this interesting and dangerous situation during the Coronavirus situation: the media actively selling fear, the government promoting fear to get people to follow their directions, the doctors panicking trying to understand a new threat and an increased influx of new patients, and the patients themselves in a state of panic. This is a situation of compounded fear. Fear at every level. What do you think will be the results of this heightened level of fear? From purely a psychological perspective, that’s a PERFECT STORM for ill health in the form of somatoform disorders, mental disorders,iatrogenic deaths and suicide.
So, it is vital we learn to identify when fear is building in us and learn how to handle it as quickly as possible. It can save our lives and that of our loved ones.
6 Things You Can Do That Will Immediately Neutralize The Fear In You
- STOP, or severely limit, watching the news. It’s a horror movie!
- STOP believing unreliable sources that have a vested interest in selling you fear AND have lied to you in the past (politicians, media, etc) when in doubt, ‘follow the money’.
- STOP ruminating – it means stop entertaining negative, fear inducing, thoughts. Get busy with another, better thought or activity. Ie watch a comedy, go and play, etc
- START exercising – it releases yummy endorphins and makes you happy. Start with some kind of easy exercise
- START spending time every day to notice all the things you do have that we usually take for granted (ie clean water out of a tap, hot showers, some of your loved ones ;), the warm and comfy bed you get into at night, etc)
- START eating healthy. What we eat does make a difference. The wrong kind of food, or the wrong amounts, can tax our system and produce chemical anxiety. Ie coffee, capsicums, iceberg lettuce, oranges, etc. Every body is different so it is a matter of paying attention to what your body says and experimenting.