With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, social distancing and quarantine easing up, and individuals coming to grips with a social reality that may be different for a few more months- it is appropriate to feel worried. As one is coping, it may be helpful to understand the differences between anxiety and fear, and how they can work together.
FEAR: YOUR BODY’S NATURAL RESPONSE
Fear is an evolutionary important emotion. It informs your brain that a threat to your physical safety is present, and you must act to protect yourself. Your brain and body will adaptively respond before you are aware.
When faced with a life-threatening danger, your autonomous nervous system works to get you out of danger. Your sympathetic nervous system prepares your body for fight or flight through an involuntary series of bodily functions such as: dilating your pupils to take in more light; engaging your muscles so they are prepared to fight or flee; increasing your heart rate which increases blood to your extremities; breathing shallows; cessation of unnecessary use of resources such as in digestion; elimination of urine and feces. Before you are able to think about what to do, your brain and body is already prepared to fight or flee.
Once the threat has subsided, the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest and digest system, soothes your body to a calm and composed state: your heart rate slows, digestion restarts, blood pressure decreases, breathing slows.
HOW ANXIETY DIFFERS FROM FEAR
Conceptually, the experience of anxiety is one of fear; however, there is no threat to your physical safety. That is, one may feel the physical experience of fear but the experience is not dangerous. For example you may have thoughts of dangerous situations arising, public speaking, social situations, spiders, going outside, driving, etc. While these situations may not pose a direct, immediate threat of danger, you may have symptoms of fear and this is called anxiety.
The COVID-19 virus has proven to be a mortal risk, so a fear response is adaptive and normal. Fear indicates that there is danger. However, as human beings our emotional experience does not have to direct our behavior. We can divide our brain into was is often called a primitive brain (amygdala) and an evolved brain (frontal lobe).
Our primitive brain is guided by emotions and impulses. Our evolved brain regulates executive functioning, or self-control, planning, and flexible thinking. When used optimally, our primitive brain can inform decision making made by our evolved brain without overriding it.
OVERCOMING COVID-19 ANXIETY AND FEAR
Fear triggered by Covid-19 is what tells you there is danger; your evolved brain is what helps you make decisions that keep you safe. This delicate balance is important because it indicates that danger is looming and helps you make decisions to keep yourself safe while adapting to a new daily life in which you can find fulfillment.
When assessing for anxiety during COVID-19, attend to behaviors and thoughts that prevent you from engaging in your relationships, work, and the ability to find pleasure.
Notice obsessive compulsive behaviors or behaviors that you feel compelled to do in order to interrupt a disturbing thought: hand or body washing, cleaning, checking behaviors, repeating words or routines. Notice agoraphobic behaviors or a fear of leaving the house at all. Notice racing thoughts around “what if” and catastrophes. Notice aggressive and violent behaviors. These behaviors and thoughts are likely triggered and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and can be treated by a mental health professional.