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COVID-19: Healthy Responses to Fear

We see waves of fear moving through the world right now. Fear can be rational or irrational. It can be a reasonable and adaptive response to a perceived threat. In this case it helps us mobilize the resources we need in order to take effective action. But if fear persists or becomes irrational, it can lead us to panic and take ineffective actions. We might go out and break isolation to buy three years’ worth of toilet paper; after all, everyone else is doing it so we should do it too.

As Paul Atriedes said in Dune, “Fear is the mind killer.” When it persists, we stop being able to think rationally and stop being able to take effective action. Living in chronic fear also profoundly weakens our immune system just when we need it most, and affects every other aspect of our lives as well.

Please review this list of the multidimensional effects of chronic fear. It shows us the magnitude of the problem. Immediately after this list is a short video walking us through a simple exercise by a PhD psychologist that can quickly and easily take us out of fear and into a grounded and resourceful state. In that settled and resourceful state we begin the process of recovery and healing.

Following the video are a couple inspiring descriptions of how we might choose to respond in these challenging situations. I encourage you to find what resonates for you, find what feels satisfying and gratifying, and do that. Yes, we are living through difficult situations, but keep these words in mind:

The Effects of Chronic Fear on a Person's Health

The following material was written by Jaime Rosenberg as a summary of Dr. Mary D. Moller’s presentation at the 2017 Neuroscience Education Institute (NEI) Congress. Dr. Moller outlined the potential consequences of fear on overall, physical, emotional, environmental, and spiritual health.

The potential effects of chronic fear on overall health include:

  • Immune system dysfunction

  • Endocrine system dysfunction

  • Autonomic nervous system alterations

  • Sleep/wake cycle disruption

  • Eating disorders

  • Alterations in hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis

The potential effects of chronic fear on physical health include:

  • Headaches turning into migraines

  • Muscle aches turning into fibromyalgia

  • Body aches turning into chronic pain

  • Difficulty breathing turning into asthma

The potential effects of chronic fear on emotional health include:

  • Dissociation from self

  • Unable to have loving feelings

  • Learned helplessness

  • Phobic anxiety

  • Mood swings

  • Obsessive-compulsive thoughts

The potential consequences of chronic fear on environmental health include:

  • Continued living in fear-generating situations due to uncertainty of moving out and unknown associated dangers

  • Not able to find safe housing

  • Afraid to leave home because of paranoia

The potential consequences of chronic fear on spiritual health:

  • Bitterness/fear toward God or others

  • Confusion/disgust with God or religion

  • Loss of trust in God and/or clergy

  • Waiting for God to fix it

  • Despair related to perceived loss of spirituality

Moving from Fear to Flourishing

Once an immediate threat has passed, we can let go of fear and move into a more creative and generative state. There are many ways to do this. A few of them are mentioned below. The following video by psychologist Katherine Coder, PhD, gives us one simple tool for doing so.

“Signals of Safety: Nourish Your Nervous System”

Use this link to watch the video on Vimeo:

Here are some more life-supporting responses you might consider.

Some spiritual tools and tips

Here are some insights on how to engage more deeply with unfolding events from a Zen Buddhist perspective, this time shared by one of our own professors, Ji Hyang Padma, PhD. Click here to view her piece titled "Compassion."

Here is a resource document shared with us by Reverend Alex Kern, Executive Director, Northeastern University Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service. Click here to view his piece titled "Caring for self and others at this time."

And Fuller Transformations

Many of us pick up and feel the excruciating fears of the people around us. As we develop compassion for those who are suffering, we tend to want to alleviate that suffering.

You could practice a distant healing meditation like tonglen, metta, or another healing practice you are already experienced with, or you could join in one of the meditations below.

The first is a gentle and beautifully-guided meditation on connecting ourselves with the earth then working together with all life to help transform the fear in our shared human consciousness.

Meditation and Tuning to Release Collective Anxiety

By Ariana Lise Newcomer

Use this link to watch the video on YouTube:

The HeartMath Institute in collaboration with the Global Coherence

Initiative hosts a series of simple yet powerful group meditations also focused on transforming fear in ourselves and in the collective human consciousness. Titled “Replacing Fear with Managed Concern,” these global synchronous meditations take place every Wednesday until the pandemic ends, with start times of 4 a.m., 12 p.m. (noon), and 8 p.m. Pacific Time (GMT/UTC minus 7 hours).

You can join the meditations through the Global Coherence App or through the Global Care Room website. More information about the meditations and the complete text of the transformational exercise can be downloaded through this link.

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