Making Choices Out of Fear

March 31, 2021

Pandemic fear has gripped the globe for an entire year, and it continues to hold tight. Warnings of even more contagious and deadly disease variants are suspected just over the horizon, as constant coverage of case numbers and death counts urge us to stay diligent or risk certain doom.

The goal of this incessant message is to save lives, but the cost has been high. This past year on high alert has resulted in a sharp uptick in suicides, mental health problems, drug overdoses, and domestic abuse.

Research shows that fear messaging can effectively influence public behavior, but it also harms people in the process. In an article published June 2020 in the journal Health and Behavior, researchers point to several studies that show that fear-inducing public health campaigns can also inspire denial, backlash, avoidance, defensiveness, stigmatization, depression, anxiety, increased risk behavior, and a feeling of lack of control.

“Fear appeals, also known as scare tactics, have been widely used to promote recommended preventive behaviors,” researchers wrote. “We contend that unintended negative outcomes can result from fear appeals that intensify the already complex pandemic and efforts to contain it.”

Fear is an awful feeling, but it’s that way by design. This hardwired survival mechanism jolts us into action when we face life-threatening situations.

Unfortunately, this feeling can misfire. Fear is infamous for distorting reality. It can make small threats appear bigger than they actually are, and force us to live under the stress of every worst-case scenario.

But how can fear be a source of both good and bad advice? According to Brandon LaGreca, author of the new book, “Cancer, Stress and Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience,” it’s not so much the feeling as your reaction to it. LaGreca, who also practices Chinese medicine, says the quality of advice we get from fear all depends on how well we manage it.

“It’s about evaluating our fear, seeing if it’s warranted or not, and then considering what we can do about it,” LaGreca said.

To get a better perspective on the strange dual nature of this raw emotion, LaGreca breaks fear into two basic categories: immediate and looming. One we have little control over, and the other we control way too much.

Immediate fears are those that strike with no warning and demand immediate action.

“Say someone is driving in front of you and slams on the breaks. Your body has to respond.” LaGreca said. “That saves your life. You slam on the breaks, you swerve, and you do what you need to do.”

Compare this to fears in the looming category—things like rejection, abandonment, death, social discord, political turmoil, and fear of the unknown. These fears can weigh on us for weeks, months, or for much of our lives. They threaten some point in our future, but you never know when. Looming fears force us to be on guard at all times. To an outside observer, these fears may appear trivial and unwarranted, yet we still suffer.

Our responses to immediate and looming fears also differ biochemically. LaGreca says that when confronting an immediate fear, your adrenal glands pump out epinephrine and norepinephrine. This gives you a quick surge of energy and focus to handle the acute situation. When the danger has passed and we catch our breath, the fight or flight state fades, and stress hormones fall back to baseline.

The hormone that primarily helps us mitigate looming fear is cortisol. However, the obsessive nature of looming fear never gives this hormone a break. And when cortisol is chronically elevated, mental and physical damage can result.

In addition to handling stress, cortisol regulates inflammation and blood sugar. However, the body is designed to make threats a priority, even if other functions suffer. In an environment of neverending stress and elevated cortisol, people typically acquire fat more easily and have a harder time losing it. Their immune function suffers. Blood sugar is thrown off balance. And the whole body is subjected to greater wear and tear.

“We are making ourselves sick by making this chronic cortisol exposure and then having all of the inflammation that comes with that,” LaGreca said. “We know that cortisol is catabolic to the gut. That causes long-term damage to the body.”

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