This is Your Brain on Fear…

…and how to quiet an anxious mind.

With the looming threat of COVID-19, fearmongering and misinformation is at an all-time high. Inundated with reports of potential threats 24/7 on our airwaves and social medial, it’s easy to get caught up the in the wave of hysteria that is now sweeping the world. We are assaulted on a daily basis by information with the precise intent to activate and feed our basic survival fears.

Incredibly, we are often willing gluttons for this type of base emotional manipulation. Like watching a train wreck we can’t turn away from, we may click on the news and expose ourselves to one horrific event after another. Fear is the new sex. It sells! The joke in the journalism trade is, “If it bleeds, it leads.” And, the more lurid, the better.

Irrational behaviors erupt, pushing people to hoard everything from toilet paper to vodka and doing things that cause more harm than good. One report mentioned that some people were reported to have ingested bleach to kill the virus! A friend of mine told me recently that, upon going to the local grocer for everyday supplies her husband found the shelves where the bathroom tissue would normally be stocked, empty. Upon inquiry, he was told that someone had bought the entire truckload of toilet paper before it had even hit the shelves.

Our fear levels have gone off the rails.

Why can’t relatively intelligent and rational people over-ride their fears and make reasonable and wise decisions, you may wonder? One of the reasons lies in what happens to our brain when over-exposed to fear. Unfortunately, as risk consultant and author David Ropeik of How Risky Is It, Really? reports, “The smarter people are, the more they can twist the facts to prove their point of view.” According to Ropeik, we don’t just take in the facts and reasonably assess the danger.

When exposed to fear, our brain is more interested in conserving energy than engaging in rational thought so it discounts or ignores risks we can’t control and attempts to manage the fears we imagine to have some influence over. Whether these fears concern potential or real threats is irrelevant.

Ropeik also suggests that with exposure to fearful situations the prefrontal cortex tends to go off line and the brain becomes lazy. It’s in survival mode and needs to conserve energy, after all. So, instead of making sound and reasonable choices, a fear-filled (or thrill-seeking) mind will reach for seemingly obscure or unrelated “facts” to rationalize risky behaviors.

Part of the way the brain minimizes mental demands is to become selective about which dangers it can reasonably respond to in the moment. So, reflexively the mind reasons, I can’t do anything about the Coronavirus or children being bombed in the Middle East, but I can buy a a year’s supply of toilet paper and water or take a pill that cures my erectile dysfunction. At least I can manage that crisis, the limbic/lizard brain reasons.

To the limbic brain, it makes sense to tend to our survival needs–to focus only on that which we have some reasonable control over. This same rationalization and illusion of control is why many are buying up everything on the grocer’s shelves.

Unresolved fear creates an imbalance that leaves us either in a constant state of hyper-alert or causes our conscious awareness to shut down from the overload, or both.

Now that we’re all jacked up on the looming dangers of our every day world, what the heck are we to do about it? I don’t know about you but I don’t like to feel my fear and anger popping up whenever I read about or watch the latest tragic account. However, even though we may not be able to personally resolve the threats that seem to press in from every side, we can take some practical steps to reduce and manage our fears in a more balanced way.

St. George Island, Florida

Here are just a few ways you can actively make a difference in reducing fear:

Get some perspective: Do you realize that though daily media reports suggest that everthing’s going to hell in a hen basket and, probably within the next 24 hours, things are really not as tragic as the media would have you believe? Take mental stock of your fears, then do some serious reflecting on whether or not those fears are imminent and if they are actually a real threat to your life, family, or home. Remember that most average American citizens are decent, kind, generous, and good-natured folk who love their families and their communities.

Studies show that exposure to the elements, sunlight, fresh air, and especially dirt, can strengthen our immune systems. Further, unsupervised, unstructured time alone (otherwise known as play) develops creativity and problem-solving skills.

Go on a media fast: Take time to retreat from a steady diet of the ongoing crises of the world. I’m not suggesting you stick your head in the sand about the state of our world, but it’s really not necessary to mainline tragic information in order to have an intelligent conversation or to take positive steps in correcting social, cultural, or environmental imbalances.

Once a week do a media detox for at least a full day. Trust me, the world as you know it will survive. If something really catastrophic happens, I’m sure your friends and neighbors will alert you. You have much better things to do with your mind.

Play: Have fun. Be silly. Laugh with your friends. Tell a joke. Play with your dog or cat or ferret. Give your self plenty of reasons to exit survival mode thinking and simply enjoy life. Play raises the levels of endorphins and norepinephrine in the brain, the “feel good” hormones that strengthen our immune systems.

Focus on what’s right in the world: Take time to notice the beauty around you. There really is a lot to appreciate at almost any moment of the day; the beauty of nature or art or music, for example. Or, the generosity of your family or neighbors or people you don’t even know who do little things every day to make our world more comfortable. Thank your sanitation worker or waitress or your children’s teachers. Enjoy snuggling with your beloved or your pet. Any of these small actions, when performed on a regular basis, go a long way in helping to neutralize or reduce stress hormones and helps our fearful mind focus on something besides our survival.

Take Action: Nothing brings about satisfaction or makes a difference in the world than taking an action that supports what’s dear to our hearts. If you worry about the safety of your food supply, take a course in growing your own food, find or create a community garden in your neighborhood or support your local farmers. If you’re concerned about the damages of petroleum production and consumption do to the environment, do everything in your power to reduce your carbon footprint on the planet. There are tons of books and free information on how to do this. Taking positive action can reassure us, calming our fearful minds.

Learn some basic survival skills: If you don’t already know how, learn to grow your own food and how to filter water to make it fit for drinking. Go backpacking or camping. Learn how to start a fire and keep it going and, how to cook on one. Take a wilderness survival or first aid course. Enroll in a self-defense course or learn how to shoot a gun. Learn how to hunt.

Investigate how to forage for wild foods or how to use plants for medicine. Many plants that grow right in your own yard (You know, the ones you call weeds and keep trying to yank out or poison?) may supplement your diet or heal a wound or treat a virus. Though you may never have to use these skills you will be empowered by the ability to care for yourself in an emergency situation. It’s also a welcome diversion from focusing on the imminent doom of mankind.

Pay Attention to Your Fear Triggers: Notice what your fear triggers are—they will provide you with important clues to where you can engage in making a positive change. What causes you the most upset? What do you shout at the television over? Wherever you find a fear trigger, you will find a place to make a difference in the world.

Reassurance: When we have a balanced relationship with fear, we will perceive a threat, come up with reasonable ways to deal with it, and then take appropriate action. Sometimes taking these steps are enough to reassure ourselves we’ll be able to cope with the situation at hand. Additionally, receiving reassurance from others can help calm our fears and allow our prefrontal cortex to come back on line so we can remember that we possess the skills and knowledge to deal with things.

Call a trusted friend or advisor to get some objective feedback and to offer the reassurance that you can manage what’s currently facing you or that you’ll have access to the support you need. Calm reassurance goes a long way in reducing our fears.

Prayer and Meditation: Making time for prayer and reflection can be one of the most soothing practices to calm a fearful mind. In moments of quiet contemplation we can hear the wisdom of the Divine speaking through our heart of truth. That is why so many find comfort and reassurance in practicing their faith.

As we heed these unspoken inner messages and find that in surrendering to my spirit’s calling, we honor our hearts and can trust in our ability to choose wisely. We can develop and strengthen a level of trust in Divine guidance and in our own innate and God-given wits and wisdom. These are the gifts fear can bring us.

Blessings and Peace, Melody

The above post contains excerpts taken from my recently released book, Soul of the Seasons: Creating Balance, resilience, & Connection By Tapping the Wisdom of the Natural World.

One thought on “This is Your Brain on Fear…

  1. Pingback: What Our Response to COVID-19 Tells Us – Soul of the Seasons:

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