Fear has become almost a pandemic in itself as the world comes to understand the scope and danger of Covid-19. Fear is the emotional response to an immediate danger (as when a lion enters the tent). Fear triggers instinctive physiological changes which give us temporary “super powers” to run from or to fight a real and present danger. When this threat to survival has passed, the body naturally moves to recover homeostasis; its condition before the danger arose. Normally it can take up to two days for super power chemistry (adrenalin, epinephrine, cortisol) to return to normal after the threat has passed.
Here’s the problem: Fear of the Coronavirus will do little to ensure our individual survival. This is because fear helps us to survive principally when confronted by an immediate danger. The threat of the Coronavirus is not immediate for most of us but it is an immanent threat (a possibility) for us all. The fight or flight response is useless in fighting a potential danger, one which we cannot see and from which we cannot run.
Fear then, as a reaction to the virus, could be seen as an emotional mistake. Fear of the virus can leave us in a permanent state of “fight or flight," an unhealthy condition if sustained for long periods. Cortisol for example, a hormone activated by the fight or flight response, can produce harmful physical and psychological effects if it becomes a constant in our biochemistry.
Fear can save our lives in the short run, but if fear becomes long term it can make us ill. PTSD affects soldiers long after leaving a war zone. Covid-19 is likely to have a similar effect on many of the survivors of this “war” against the virus.
From the depths of the Great Depression, in his first inaugural speech, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously declared, “So let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
We will overcome this new corona virus and the ones to follow, but a bigger challenge to the health of our species will be to overcome fear. Here are two ways to end fear quickly.
Breathing is usually an unconscious act (lest we forget to do it). Oxygen enters and leaves our lungs more than nine hundred times every hour and we rarely pay attention to it. Notice your breathing now. Notice the air passing through the nasal passages, the chest rising and falling, perhaps taking deeper, more complete breaths. When you pay attention to your breath, you are in the present moment. In the present moment, you are not in fear. Fear is experienced when we imagine a future event. I may get the virus, my boat may sink, the check may not arrive, she may find another…..all future thinking.
Now, in this exact moment, there is no immediate danger. I am safe in the present. When I feel fear, I am in the future. Psychological time, not real time. When you feel fear you are thinking in the future. You can stay in the present by breathing consciously.
Not all techniques of meditation will quickly reverse the fear reaction. Fear is an excited state and causes acceleration of breath and heart rates, hyper alertness in the nervous system, and the biochemistry of fight or flight. A meditation helpful in opposing fear should be able to quickly reverse these signs. Such a meditation should allow mind and body to experience deep relaxation. When the mind and body are in a state of rest, entirely in the present moment, the physiology of fear cannot be supported. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the earliest texts on the importance of meditation, declares,
“Even a little of this dharma (meditation) destroys great fear.”
A single sitting of such a meditation can quickly restore inner peace. Meditating regularly can produce long term emotional immunity from fear and confer other practical benefits besides.
May we all be safe, in the present moment, and without fear.