I have recently been thinking a good bit about fear. When teaching Public Speaking to college students, my goal is to help them overcome their fear of speaking in front of people, their fear of judgment, of making mistakes. And over the last few weeks and months, we have all been facing and processing pandemic fear—infection fear, election fear, fear of losing our freedoms, fear of returning to school, fear of those who don’t wear masks, fear, fear, fear.
I have to say, I’ve had about enough of fear.
In 2017, Mary D. Moller, (Ph.D., DNP, ARNP, PMHCNS-BC, CPRP, FAAN), spoke at a session during the Neuroscience Education Institute (NEI) Congress. She discussed the physiology of fear and its long-term effects on human well-being. I recently read a summary of her presentation, and I learned what extended periods of fear can do to us.
There are three predictable stages the body uses to respond to stressors, called the general adaption syndrome. The first is, obviously, alarm. The first reaction to stress recognizes there’s a danger and prepares to deal with the threat. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system and autonomic nervous system are activated. Primary stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and nonadrenaline are released. This is the “fight or flight” response. I felt that in March when Governor Jim Justice shut the state down. I remember where I was, who I was with when I watched his quarantine press conference. Do you?
The second body reaction to fear is resistance. Homeostasis begins restoring balance in the body, and a period of recovery for repair and renewal takes place. Stress hormones (that fight or flight response) may return to normal–but there may be reduced defenses and adaptive energy left. We feel tired, less inspired, and our immune system is weak. I went through that too. All that quarantine project energy I had in March and April? The manic energy of May? Yeah, well, all that petered out about halfway through June. In July, I became a slug, sloughing through my days, binge-watching Netflix, and avoiding the heat. And now here we are in August.
The third stage of processing continual fear is exhaustion. At this phase, the stress has continued for some time. The body’s ability to resist is lost because its adaption energy supply is gone. This is often referred to as overload, burnout, adrenal fatigue, maladaptation, or dysfunction. I don’t think I’m in the third stage yet. Yes, I’m tired. Tired of masks, hand sanitizer, my due diligence to others’ recklessness. I’m tired of politics, tired of press conferences, tired of video meetings, tired of talking about it. I think of Madeline Kahn in the movie Blazing Saddles singing, “Tired, tired of playing the game, Ain’t it a crying shame, I’m so tired.” I’m tired of it all, but I’m not yet exhausted.
So, Dr. Moller, with her numerous degrees, also tells of the physical, emotional, and spiritual symptoms of long-term fear. And you know, it isn’t good. The potential effects of chronic fear on overall health include immune system dysfunction, endocrine system dysfunction, autonomic nervous system alterations, sleep/wake cycle disruption, and eating disorders. I am sleeping well, but I’ve gotten quite tired of cooking. I had a boil (infected hair follicle) during July’s dog days, the first I have had since childhood. It was as unpleasant as I remember.
The potential effects of chronic fear on emotional health include dissociation from the self, inability to have loving feelings, learned helplessness, phobic anxiety, mood swings, and obsessive-compulsive thoughts, continued fear of leaving home because of paranoia. The potential consequences of chronic fear on spiritual health include bitterness or fear toward God or others, confusion or disgust with your higher power or religion, loss of trust in your higher power and/or clergy, inactivity or lack of responsibility while waiting for a higher power to fix the issues, despair related to a perceived loss of spirituality. Without making this into a sermon, I must say that I still have faith. I have always believed in some higher plan, though I may not understand it or like it. Plus, I’m more likely to place blame for most messes in this world to human error, narcissism, or greed.
I have a t-shirt in my closet that is now too small for me to wear, but I cannot part with it. On the front, it says, “fear less, hope more.” I’m trying to make that my mantra. I want to get past my defeatist prayers of “thy will be done,” and get to the point where I’m making plans and decisions – not based on fear but based on hope. I hope this virus ends. I hope for economic stability. I hope for a smooth election, a safe school year, more tomatoes, Christmas travel. I hope I don’t have to take the vaccine, I hope our country survives the election. I hope all of this passes. I hope.
I know that sounds cheesy, even as I write it. I’m a cynic at heart, with an inherent distrust of authority, traditional medicine, and government. I have faith in some people, but little faith in mankind. I see no reason to believe a higher power would favor us over the animals of the land and sea, or the flora and fauna we trample on. Even so, I cling to hope. I have had enough of fear this year.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not an anarchist or radical. I have every intention to remain vigilant and cautious. I have masks of all kinds and colors, and several face shields. I’ve got multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in my car, purse, home, and workplace and I use them. I will work, I will vote, I will live. Caution and diligence are not fear, and if there’s anything I am tired of–truly tired of–is fear.
Hope with me. Don’t lose your faith. I know you are scared of the classrooms, the virus, and the decisions our leaders are making. I know you fear being infected, quarantined, hungry, homeless. I don’t mean to dismiss any of that. But I try to remind myself, “this, too, shall pass away.”* Nothing, good or bad, lasts forever. The current situation will not last forever. “Fear not,” is in the Bible 365 times, and now that I know that long-term fear can do, I can understand why. The Renaissance followed the Black Plaque, and the Roaring Twenties followed WWII and the Spanish Flu. So we can hope that brighter times are coming.
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*From a speech by Abraham Lincoln: “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.”
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