How we can keep fear from spiraling out of our control

(Washington Post illustration)

Abigail Marsh is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and the author of the book “The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.”

These past few months have been a crash course for all of us in the ways that fear can be used — and misused. The sudden appearance of a new and lethal virus — which, after initial declines, is reemerging as a major threat — has been a global test of everyone’s nerves. Fear is the brain’s best tool for keeping us safe from harm. It helps us learn to avoid danger, or to escape it when avoidance is impossible.

Fear is a fast learner, which is why, beginning in March, many of us found ourselves newly avoiding doorknobs and handrails, giving unmasked strangers in stores a wide berth, and reeling away from the sound of coughing. If you have adopted these habits, your fear has served you well.

But fear is not a discerning learner. It is prone to overgeneralize — to respond to things that only loosely resemble real threats. Avoidance of unmasked shoppers can blur into terror of unmasked neighbors gardening. Healthy avoidance of doorknobs can leave you up all night wondering whether you forgot to sanitize your credit card after swiping it. These unhelpful manifestations of fear occur because, while fear is good at gauging the severity of threats, it’s terrible at gauging their probability. It can make the idea of contracting a fatal illness from a passing cyclist seem far more likely than it is. When fear spirals to the point where unavoidable dangers are perceived to lurk everywhere, disabling anxiety can result.

There are various ways to prevent these outcomes. One is to squelch fear by denying the threat — continuing to party or dine or worship with unmasked others, contagion be damned. I don’t recommend this strategy. Denial may look like courage, but it’s not. One reason is that contagions are a unique type of threat — quite different from, say, attacking dogs. If you fail to avoid a dog and it bites you, only you get hurt. But if you fail to avoid a virus and it infects you, you now become the threat, a vector capable of spreading harm to others. This makes risking infection not simply a personal choice, but a moral one — and is why, in cultures around the world, practices for avoiding contamination carry strong moral implications.

As basic distancing behaviors become routine, the fear that drove us to adopt them will recede. Fear gets bored easily, leading to habituation. If you don’t feel constant fear around pools and cars, it is not because you are reckless; it’s because you have learned to swim and use seat belts to manage the threats they pose. We can come to manage the virus and its threats the same way.

Two ingredients are required. The first is good information. Keep abreast of scientifically vetted recommendations from the World Health Organization and other reliable sources. Yes, these recommendations change sometimes, but this is because scientists are gathering and analyzing data and updating their knowledge at unprecedented rates. We now know that, for example, most coronavirus transmission takes place in crowded indoor spaces, particularly when people are forcefully expelling breath by talking, coughing or singing.

The second ingredient is (sensible) exposure to the threat. The more we venture back into the world, the more mundane mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing and social distancing will seem. Those who work in jobs deemed essential have already learned this. For the rest of us, it will be helpful to keep in mind as states and towns call an end to lockdowns and begin opening up schools and workplaces, forcing us to risk some degree of exposure — an inevitable outcome. The virus is here to stay, and effective treatments or vaccines may be years away. Complete avoidance of risk will not be possible.

This is where courage comes in. True courage is not denial of risk; it is mastery of fear when risk must be judiciously confronted to serve a higher (usually unselfish) goal. It is courage that sends firefighters into fires and nurses into sick bays. Courage requires focusing on others, rather than on yourself, and is, as a bonus, among the best ways to manage fear and enhance well-being more generally.

Great leaders use these facts to reduce both fear and risk, literally encouraging (bringing courage to) those they lead through exhortations to be mindful of the welfare of others, and, critically, through provisions of tools and support to manage risk judiciously.

America has not benefited from great national leadership during this pandemic. We have endured denials of risk, confusing information and inadequate tools, with tragic consequences: needless deaths, shamefully inequitable outcomes for minority communities, and widespread fear and anxiety. But we need not succumb to fear. Instead, we should harness it to minimize transmission while making judicious efforts to serve higher goals — educating our children, reducing inequities, and doing what we can to support local businesses and each other — to avoid compounding the tragedy.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It’s crucial to beating this pandemic.

Greg Sargent: Coronavirus has exposed huge vulnerabilities. Here’s a plan to start fixing that.

Catherine Rampell: The U.S. is falling behind its peers. Americans — if not their leaders — are starting to notice.

Deborah Tannen: How the coronavirus has changed the way we greet each other

Megan McArdle: We can’t bear the truth of covid-19, so we’ve just decided to forget

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