Most of us are now familiar with the idea of Covid brain, a way to describe the uncertainty and isolation that the Covid pandemic has can cause us to experience a great deal of anxiety, depression, isolation and fear. How long this is going to last? Will we ever get back to normal? Is it going to get worse? We ask ourselves unanswerable questions and because we do not have the answers, anxiety deepens. We struggle to concentrate, to do normal activities, to feel positive and hopeful.
Add to the many issues around our political landscape and racial injustices that we are learning involve severe trauma to people of color that has existed for hundreds of years. Our brains are on overload with the stress of these things and we are collectively overwhelmed.
Just writing this and probably you reading it has not contributed to an improved sense of relief but there can be some when we better understand what is going on in our brains. I thought it might be helpful to explore some information that provides clarity about the concepts of threat, anxiety, worry, fear, panic and terror, emotions many of us have experienced in varying degrees, because knowledge truly is power. By learning more about each of these reactions to what is going on in the world today, we can each claim the power to control some of what is happening in the world by changing what is happening within our brains.
Here are some of the things your brain is dealing with. When a person feels threatened, they perceive there is some degree of impending or actual danger that requires fight, flee, freeze, submit or capitulation. Typically, it leads to a whole progression of neurological responses that relate to someone’s experiences of having flashbacks, being triggered, and experiencing anxiety producing thoughts, beliefs and behaviors. This progression carries with it the corresponding release of neurotransmitters and hormones into the system that creates their own set of reactions and sensations. Depending on whether the threat response is compounded by PTSD determines its strength and length of the response.
Anxiety, which is the feeling from which worry stems, “. . . is always caused by uncertainty,” states de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear.
It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain that prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can’t predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your predictions, thus increasing your certainty.
Someone with unresolved trauma who is in a situation in which that trauma is chronically experienced, can remain in a state of hyper-arousal. This is a form of anxiety: not knowing when real danger will occur, how long it will last and how painful it will be. This is one of the reasons a child might provoke an attack by an abusing adult. By choosing when the attack will happen, the child has at least some control and therefore some predictability.
“Worry,” states de Becker, “is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic.” He suggests that worry does not bring solutions and often detracts from finding them. He calls it a form of self-harassment. He also says that worry can provide a secondary reward, used as a tool to magically ward off danger. The belief can be that worrying about something will somehow stop it from happening.
• Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we do not do anything about the matter.
• Worry is a way to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we are doing something.
• Worry is a cloying way to have connection with others.
• Worry is a protection against future disappointment.
De Becker uses an analogy between real fear and worry and the relationship between pain and suffering. He says that pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life while suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary. He believes that worry hurts people much more than it helps because it interrupts clear thinking, wastes time and shortens life. He encourages people not to manufacture fear and if they feel they are worrying, to explore the worry to find out what is under it.
“Real fear,” according to de Becker, “is not paralyzing, it is energizing.” He also describes it as objective “. . . fear says something might happen. If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it, manage it, surrender to it; or we start to fear the next outcome we predict might be coming.”
He says there are two rules about fear that can improve the way someone uses fear, reduces its frequency and transforms life experiences. This first rule is that if you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening. “Fear summons powerful predictive resources that tell us what might come next. It is that which might come next that we fear—what might happen, not what is happening now.” He uses an example to demonstrate this:
As you stand near the edge of a high cliff, you might fear getting too close. You stand right at the edge, you no longer fear getting too close, you now fear falling . . . if you do fall, you no longer fear falling—you fear landing.
The second rule regarding fear states that when you fear it is not usually what you think you fear; rather it is what you link to fear. When it is real fear, it will either be in the presence of danger, or it will link to pain or death. When we get a fear signal, our intuition has already made many connections.
Panic, according to de Becker, is described in the following way: “Panic, the great enemy of survival, can be perceived as an unmanageable kaleidoscope of fears.” Many trauma-impacted people are prone to panic disorders because it is the nature of someone with PTSD to struggle with not only knowing but sensing danger in the here and now when a flashback or trigger instantaneously places the person in a past moment of fear or terror. Terror is the most extreme degree of fear and panic a person can experience. It is the maximum degree of being overwhelmed by fear. The brain is at its most primitive level of functioning in a mostly reflexive state “
What can we do? We can imagine what is going on in our brain and then use our cortex to communicate with the lower parts that are experiencing threat, anxiety, worry, fear, panic or terror. We can decide to monitor not only our thoughts but our reactions to those thoughts and beliefs. We can use logic to help us reduce unhealthy reactions to what is going on in the world.
“I can only control what is in my realm of control. If I try to control things I cannot control, I will actually hurt myself because I will start to feel threatened, anxious, worried, fearful, panicked, or even terrified. I need to understand that I cannot control what is going on in the world beyond my ability to vote. That is the one way I can take charge of my life and contribute to the world.”
We can choose to avoid those people that stir up thoughts and feelings of helplessness. We can encourage others to follow these guidelines and by doing so, we can come together to feel safer and claim the power we have.
Invitation for Reflection:
- Consider the degrees to which you have felt one or more of the emotions and sensations of threat, anxiety, worry, fear, panic or terror. How has that impacted you overall?
- How does understanding these various forms of fear help you claim your power to manage some of what is happening in your brain?
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute