March 27, 2020

Fear Factor

In a break from COVID-19 news, we are going to talk about an equally dangerous pandemic affecting the globe: fear. They say to have knowledge over a thing is to gain power over it, so we want to break fear down to control it.

We feel fear in the thalamus area of our brain and it quickly sends a signal to the amygdala that we need to mobilize and a series of physiological dominoes fall to make us really good at that. 

The heart starts racing, adrenaline is released giving us a quick burst of energy; and our pupils dilate allowing us to detect and process visual cues for success. This hard encoded instinct is responsible for the fight or flight reflex that exists in response to stress. 

You can see how in caves, this clever evolutionary function enabled our survival. In simpler times, fear was related to relatively simple things – identifiable physical threats like predators and natural dangers like falling. 

Modern problems confuse this simple response because they are far more complex and cannot usually be resolved by lashing out or running away. Fear and our responses to it are meant to be temporary.

Modern fears are more complex than these primal physical threats. Large modern communities and social systems and the ability to convey news ad threats across the globe mean that our fears are created and fed by complex riverine like systems with branches from social, economic, familial, ecological and biological systems. 

If you are feeling overwhelmed and afraid by the 24-hour rolling bad-news cycle grounded by the reality and gravity of this threat – that is because we’re not really hard-wired to cope with threats of this magnitude that protract for such extended periods of time. When there is a circuit overload in our brains, it is futile to tell people not to be afraid, we have to put a circuit-breaker into our ancient neurological systems.

If you are feeling fear, you can acknowledge and recognise it physically. Heart rate is up, pupils dilated, you’re hyper-aware of the environment, irritable, and you’re tired from excess adrenaline and cortisol. And once you know what your body is up to, you can hack your brain.

And here is how you do that. Unless you are engaged in strategic long term planning – which is an activity that has a start time and an end time – you can make your world small and make your timeline close. 

What we are worried about is global, so if your heart is racing, make your world small. Take the 1.5m around you and realise that you are safe and in that 1.5m there is nothing to fear. Move out to your room. No large animals with sharp teeth, no steep cliff faces. In your room there is nothing to fear and you are safe.

Inside your home are your loved ones and your pets. Everyone is safe, there is nothing to fear. Don’t think past this minute, in this moment everything is safe, there is nothing to fear.

As you gain calm and clear thinking and you can expand that circle to look at your livelihood, your community…however big or wherever you want to focus, and you can start thinking about future scenarios and planning, rationally. There are answers, there are options. And they may not be great but you should be approaching those with power, not with fear.

When fear creeps into your thinking, you just bring that circle right back to the 1.5m around you and to this moment. Everything is safe, there is nothing to fear. Then cast out again where you can as many times as you need to in order to get to where you need to be, without fear. 

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