How do I get less anxious?

Less fear due to changed ratings

The corona crisis is unsettling people around the world. The reactions vary from person to person, but fear often plays a role. What scares people? What is that anyway: fear? The anxiety and hypnosis researcher Dr. Barbara Schmidt from the Institute for Psychology at the University of Jena explains in an interview the basics of fear, its effects and how one can perhaps better deal with this feeling.

With Corona or COVID-19, uncertainty has broken out over Germany and the whole world. Why does a crisis like the present one fear so many people?
Schmidt: The social situation in the context of COVID-19 is new and unknown to us all. We find it difficult to properly assess the situation. The situation changes every day. We cannot fall back on familiar patterns. This creates a feeling of insecurity and fear. Fear is justified. But we should remain able to act despite the fear. To do this, it is helpful to understand what fear actually is.

What is fear?
Fear is a feeling we have when we assess a situation as threatening. Most of the time, when we feel fear, we are trying to do something to reduce the perceived threat. I would particularly like to go into the interesting aspect of the evaluation here. The things around us initially have no meaning in themselves, through our evaluation we assign a meaning to them. This results in a great deal of freedom. We have the opportunity to evaluate a situation differently so that we can deal with it better. There are the most exciting examples. Imagine stepping onto a stage and having palpitations because you are about to give a speech. You can now rate this palpitation as follows: Ah, I am excited and afraid to speak in front of the audience. Alternatively, you could also think: Ah, my body is currently providing all means so that I can immediately perform at my best. Interestingly, fear is also very difficult to measure. You can't just put on a thermometer and measure the level of fear. Precise measurement is very important in psychological research. So we developed special query methods to measure fear. Here, too, the complexity of this feeling is evident.

When and how does fear become a danger?
Here I would like to refer to the two big actors in our brain. On the one hand, there is the amygdala, which is very old in terms of development and reacts quickly to threats. The amygdala activates automatic behaviors such as fight or flight. It thus fulfills a very important function, without which we as humans would not have survived. The second actor is the prefrontal cortex, i.e. the area behind our forehead. In terms of development, it is very young and very large in humans. The prefrontal cortex does not have such an easily definable task, it is a kind of coordinator. He says who takes the lead and when, like a conductor in an orchestra. Now the amygdala, the fear center, and the prefrontal cortex, the conductor, are in very close contact. So the amygdala indicates that something is threatening. Then the prefrontal cortex comes in and allows the amygdala to sound her alarm very loud because it is legitimate, or it tells her to hold back. This is a fascinating process that shows how flexible the processes in our brain are. If the prefrontal cortex cannot do its job properly, there is no one left to stop the amygdala. Then our thoughts and actions are strongly influenced by fear, which does not always make sense. For example, in one study I found that anxious subjects showed increased activation in the frontal cortex before making a risky decision. The more active the frontal cortex, the more cautious the subjects behaved (Schmidt et al., 2018 https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13210).

Why do people react so differently? Some become egoists (keyword hamster purchases), while others are committed and show solidarity?
This is where the individual personality comes into play. Each of us has specific behavior patterns that can vary widely. In a relaxed position, we can regulate ourselves relatively well, so that we can suppress socially unacceptable behavior. Here the prefrontal cortex is also active again. But if a situation is very stressful, and that is the case at the moment, then we can no longer regulate our behavior as well. The capacities that are otherwise available to us to regulate our behavior are needed to process the large amount of new information that is pouring in at the same time. Then it can lead to impulsive behaviors. Here too I would like to refer again to the aspect of evaluation. It can help here if one looks at the facts quite objectively in a quiet moment and realizes that at the moment we are experiencing many restrictions on our personal freedom, but that our supply of food is still guaranteed. I also recommend that you obtain the information that is important for assessing the current situation from reputable sources. And limit the time in which you find out about the current situation.

Are there mass fears? So fears that are “transmitted” from person to person?
It sounds like fear is something of a virus. I do not think so. However, the behavior of other people around us is also a source of information that gives us clues as to how we should assess a current situation.

What is behind such hysteria?
We observe people who behave in a certain way and draw our conclusions from them. So when a lot of people buy toilet paper, we conclude that it is appropriate now. Another factor here is that we suspect that toilet paper buyers may have information that we do not have ourselves. All of this does not take place in a particularly well-considered manner, however; it is automated behaviors.

How can the “fear chain” be broken and a “normal” state be established?
The chain of fear can be broken by resorting to our slow, conscious, second processing mode. I have already said that we often show impulsive behavior in situations that are assessed as threatening. This is then the fast, unconscious, first processing mode, which is strongly characterized by automatic behavior. The second processing mode is slower and needs some rest. My recommendation here is to take your time to calm down. Then put the facts on the table in your mind and deduce what to do next. I admit it's not easy. Since I deal a lot with hypnosis, I have a special tip on this. I have made an audio recording of a hypnosis session for you, during which you can relax and in which I suggest a feeling of security and security. I cordially invite you to take about half an hour to sit in a comfortable chair and listen to the audio recording. I have already used the text successfully in two scientific studies. [mp3, 21 mb]

In addition to the fear of infection with perhaps the worst possible consequences, there are also fears: about the health of family members and friends, about the social basis if the economy collapses, or about one's own job. What can you yourself, what politics and family or friends do about it?
Here I find it very helpful to remember that people are very adaptable. Of course, we would like to see that little changes and that we don't have to adapt. But we can't always choose that. The fact is that we can adapt. And very well. It also helps that I enjoy my work as a scientist so much that I see it as a higher goal. There is a view in therapy that it helps us seek purpose. According to the motto: The main thing is that I know what I'm doing this for. Use the time to think about what is really important to you and invest your energy there. You will grow from it and feel better. The focus is then no longer on you as a person with all the feelings of fear or powerlessness, but on the goal that you want to achieve. Realize that you can still actively influence many things. You can wash your hands thoroughly. You can keep your distance. You can keep in touch with other people over the phone and give them hope and confidence. Think about where your strengths lie and use them for others.

Finally, a very personal question: What was your fear and how could you minimize it?
Yesterday I was afraid that my plants in the garden would freeze to death. I then put them in the house. That sounds very banal now, but I like the example because it again focuses on what I would like to give you without too much excitement. Fear has to do with how we evaluate a situation. In my case, I heard on the news that it gets very cold at night and concluded that it would be dangerous for my plants if they were left outside. Then comes the step: what can I do now? In my case it was to bring the plants indoors. Today I see that the plants are doing well. Of course, I don't know if my plants would actually have frozen to death outside. This is a very exciting aspect: we behave in a certain way and this leads to certain consequences. From these consequences we then infer whether our behavior was correct. In my case, I would say the behavior was right because my plants are fine. With this in mind, I hope that you will find the strength to behave now in a way that you can judge as correct in retrospect.