Fear in the Time of Ebola

With Halloween just around the corner and the Ebola Virus dominating the news since the first diagnosed case in the United States; I thought this might be a good time to discuss the topic of fear – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Fear is an emotion that is both helpful and destructive. For instance, despite the fact that there is currently only a few cases of the Ebola virus in the entire country, it seems the country is in an uproar. Individuals have been isolated and are isolating themselves when they have virtually no possibility of having contracted the virus, people have been canceling their appointments at the hospitals in which the victims have been treated and I have even seen pictures circulating of individuals who have fashioned their own hazmat suits to enter an airport.

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While some of these actions may seem to be overkill, people are experiencing what is called a fear response.  Living in Texas, I myself have experienced these feelings of fear even though the probability of my contracting the virus from a city that is hours away is very slim.

The Good

Fear is a necessary emotion to help us to avoid dangerous and potentially life threatening situations. Dictionary.com defines fear as:

a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

The majority of the human population has a natural desire to preserve their own life, therefore when that life is perceived to be threatened fear is the natural response. When an individual is afraid, the human body goes into an upregulated state that triggers an immediate response from the brain often described at the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When the brain is in the fight, flight or freeze mode all abilities of logical thought processes go “offline” and the brain goes directly into “high alert mode”. This is a survival mechanism wired into the brain and was most helpful during a time when real and immediate threats to our lives was common, for example being chased by a saber tooth tiger. In the days of the cavemen this was a very real threat, now – not so much.

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If the cavemen spent the time to analyze and logically think through how tall this tiger is and how sharp their teeth are in relation to their skin etc. the human population would have most likely died out long ago. By being able to bypass the logical thinking, people were able to react quickly to avoid deadly situations.

 The Bad

As I spoke about in-depth in a previous blog entitled “Trauma Changes the Brain“, fear can be a default response to those individuals who have experienced trauma in their lives. This “trauma brain” is visible in the hyper vigilance some individuals experience on an almost constant basis. This continual fear is not helpful; jumping when someone comes up behind you, for instance, fear of people and not being able to trust people, or fear of an entire population. This consistently upregulated state can interfere with your daily life and possibly sabotage you.

When our body experiences extreme fear the prefrontal cortex, or the logical part of the brain, shuts down and the only options we have left are to fight back, freeze and hope it passes or to run away from it. Returning once again to the Ebola example, though we can logically derive that most individuals are not currently in immediate danger of contracting the virus, the situation is still upregulating enough for the fear to override the logic in some individuals. IE:  fight (hazmat suit), flight (avoid hospitals) and freeze (isolate themselves).

The Ugly

If we are not careful, fear can become extremely detrimental to our lives. Relationships, for example, many times people are acutely aware of their own inadequacies and can fabricate fears based on insecurities rather than facts. There are situations in which one person in a relationship may feel less than or not good enough for their partner. They will then begin to project that fear onto their partner by convincing themselves that their partner is cheating on them or searching for something better without any evidence to suggest that is occurring. Similarly, with my fear of contracting Ebola; I could drop everything in my life and rush to the emergency room every time I have an upset stomach convincing myself that I have Ebola. Or I can continue to remind myself that I have absolutely no evidence to suggest I have Ebola and have a very low probability of contracting it. This constant fear could, not only, become very expensive and disruptive to my life by running to the hospital constantly, but it could also create a health problem brought on by the stress of my hypochondria.

Returning once again to relationships, if one individual is afraid that they are not good enough and their partner MIGHT not want them anymore or they MIGHT be cheating on them this, alone, can cause a  breach in an otherwise healthy relationship. When the individual allows this fear to take over it is the natural response for them to fight back (Become overly possessive and make unfounded accusations), freeze (become overly compliant with their partner, walking on eggshells) or run away (withdraw from the relationship and build walls). With all this going on, it ends up being the lack of trust, the lack of communication and basically the underlining fear that causes the ultimate downfall of the relationship, and has nothing to do with the supposed infidelity.

OK, So What?

Having said all that, I challenge you to become more aware of your fears and how they are affecting your life. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, explore the possibility of fear being the driving factor. Consider if the fear is justified. Fear is justified when there is a threat to your health, life or well-being. Question whether your fears are fabricated or based on evidence. Speak with someone you trust outside of the situation – can they offer you a more subjective perspective? Communicate your fears to others so they can better understand how to help you by either confirming your fears or offering you evidence of the contrary.

Ultimately, fear is a necessary and helpful emotion. However, it is important that you learn to recognize when your fear is interfering with your life and how to best respond. Additionally, it is important to remember that this process is not one you have to go through on your own. Reach out to a friend, a partner, a counselor, a mentor, a religious figure etc. Bravery is not to be without fear (an individual without fear does not exist, EVERYONE gets afraid), it is to be able to acknowledge the fear and do something about it. Because fear is a universal human condition, it means that we can all relate to it and we all have the to ability to reach out to someone and understand or be understood.

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