Fear. What is it good for?

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Fear. It’s a powerful emotion. It helps alert us to danger and triggers a physical response in us – fight, flight or freeze. It was vital to the survival of our ancestors – but thankfully these days we’re less likely to be fighting off a sabre toothed tiger on the daily commute, or living in fear of deadly infection from a small graze to the knee (thank you, science!).

The immediate environmental dangers we once feared have mostly faded from our cosy western radars – yes, fear still has an important role to play in stopping us stepping in front of a bus, being swept out to sea in a storm or leaving a chip pan unattended (chip pan fires were everywhere in the 90s). And speaking of which, do you remember the ‘Charley Says’ campaign that basically made out everything you could do as a child would result in BAD THINGS – Flying a kite? Playing football? Talking to anyone that isn’t your mum? Be careful, or you may die! But anyway, you get the gist – fear has adapted a bit for us (at least for those of us lucky enough to live without the day to day dangers of homelessness and poverty)

But our wonderful human brains still work very much on the basis that negative stimuli is beneficial to our survival, which is why we are hardwired to pay extra attention to the nasty stuff. This is called the negative bias. We all do it to some extent as it’s served us so well as a species – but these days it means that news articles that incite fear will arouse our interest way more than the feel-good ones. The press are simply using human science when they choose to fill their front covers with negative news – it catches our attention quicker and more importantly sells papers.

But this is not the only way that negative bias works. It also causes us to think more about insults than compliments. It means we could’ve had the best day of our lives, but a single negative conversation will make that good feeling crash and burn. It makes us focus on the negative aspects of something quicker than the positive and it causes us to dwell on unpleasant or traumatic events more than pleasant ones – https://positivepsychology.com/3-steps-negativity-bias/

And this is why I chose to write this blog about fear right now.

Currently we have a LOT of negative news to absorb. Its on your TV, on your news feed and coming at your through your Whatsapp groups from your friend who knows someone who knows someone that was possibly a nurse once and would never lie about these things. We are being bombarded with bad news.

Fear about Covid-19 is natural – this is something that our fear and anxiety is actually supposed to kick in for (unlike when its keeping you awake at night cos you remembered something cringe you said 9 years ago) It is times like this, that our negative bias was created for – but much as our ancestors running around in loin cloths had a choice about whether to fight the dangerous beasts or run away – we also have important choices to make.

Currently I’m seeing a lot of finger pointing, a thirst for naming and shaming and countless negative judgments made from the comfort of the sofa – responses filled with anger and resentment, stemming from fear. The belief that others aren’t following the rules, that *they* are putting us all in danger.

But who benefits from shouting into the social media void and whipping up a witch hunt? What is the outcome when a choice is made to name and shame based on a hunch, or a view from a window? I’d say the answers would be respectively noone, and nothing.

The point I’m trying to get to is that while fear is natural, we each have a choice about how we react to it. What we are fearful of doesn’t define us, but the way we respond to it kind of does.

A good place to start is acknowledging that while you may feel a desperate urge to engage with every piece of fake news floating around social media, it is important to filter the information you absorb. By all means get your daily update on TV or via a reliable news source, but there is a lot of stuff flying around in social media debates and careless, fear-filled articles – do you need to know every intricate detail if you don’t have a professional requirement to do so? Do you need to add another negative comment to the never ending pages of keyboard warrior musings? Or is there something better you can do with your time? Edit your intake, take a social media break, stop reading your paper if it makes you feel scared or angry or worried above a reasonable amount.

Once you’re able to identify your own negative bias, you can choose to counterbalance it by spending some time reading good news stories. There are SO MANY out there if you have a look – lots of people doing kind little things for their communities and of course the masses of keyworkers who carry on providing excellent services for us to keep going.

And thirdly, do what you can. There are ways we can react to this situation that help us, that calm our busy minds, and can even benefit the community in which we live. Get lost in a decent book; take on a Netflix series; catch up with friends and family; plan adventures for post-lockdown times; fundraise for a local good cause; if you’re fit see if you can help anyone locally that isn’t able to leave their house; donate goods or money to your local foodbank; simply stick to the guidelines given to us by the professionals; bake a cake for a local keyworker; get some vitamin D on your daily walk; leave social justice to the police; and please know that there is no requirement to come out of isolation having learnt 3 languages, sculpted rock solid abs and written your first book of poetry. F*ck that.

But most importantly, look after yourself. Do what you can while being kind. This will pass.

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