Overcoming Fear. Woman hoarding toilet paper.

Changing Perspectives—Overcoming Our Fear-Driven Behaviors

A crisis is a great opportunity to get to know ourselves better.

Some may aspire to great ideals, but when faced with a crisis, they revert to fear-driven behaviors, such as hoarding. It can be helpful to examine how we’re assessing the crisis, in terms of its potential impact both on us and on our communities. It’s also tremendously important to assess our own emotional journeys and thought processes when a crisis arises. We can feel worry, anxiety, and fear during a crisis, and those feelings can be overwhelming. They can drive us to engage in activities that we believe will give us some control over the situation. It takes honest and intense introspection and reflection to understand our feelings, how they drive us to certain behaviors, and how we might redirect those feelings into more constructive behaviors.

Observations during the coronavirus pandemic

During periods of societal upheaval, we see a range of conditions that we don’t see under normal circumstances. In the small town I live in, most of the businesses are closed (which means that their owners and employees are not getting paid). Some restaurants are open, but are only providing carry-out, delivery, or curbside pickup, which means that they’re losing the revenue from those who would normally dine in and that the wait staff is not working. The few times I engage with people in town (in grocery stores, at the pharmacy, and during carry-out at restaurants), I see people either resigned to the risk, given the alternative of not working (and not getting paid), or working in the spirit of doing what they can for the community—thinking creatively about how they can still provide a service, while minimizing the risk to their customers and employees. I see playgrounds roped off with police tape, but children still out playing elsewhere, oblivious to the crisis. I pass people out for walks, some wary and not looking my way for fear of what I might be breathing out, others not even changing course to keep a distance.

I also see people loading up on toilet paper and staple food items, and a line of customers at our local gun shop that spills out onto the sidewalk. What makes someone go from a generous, contributing member of society to someone who looks after themselves first while potentially harming others?

What these behaviors suggest

We all respond to fear in different ways. Are people who hoard or people who believe they will have to protect their stash more afraid, are they selfish, or is their behavior simply an irrational response to their fear? When I first came to the realization that this pandemic was something different—something I had not experienced in my lifetime—I definitely had some fear-based responses. On March 12, I had been reading about the pandemic, and was aware that it was going to be bad, but it hadn’t hit home that it could really affect me. I dropped by the grocery store on the way home, just to get some things for that night’s meal, and I witnessed my first experience with hoarding. Shopping carts were being loaded up with as much toilet paper as they would hold. People were buying crazy amounts of bottled water, standing on the lower shelves to reach the remaining bottles on the top shelf. I thought to myself, “I better get a few things too, just in case.” That night, my wife Suzanne and I talked and decided to get some “worst-case scenario” supplies. The worst-case scenario became worse and worse in my mind, and I eased my worry by telling myself that if it really came down to it, we could always hunt for food on my in-laws’ farm. I absolutely had some fear-based thoughts and engaged in some fear-based behaviors.

Any time we see examples of behavior or conditions that suggest that we might not have access to what we need or that we may be in danger, we have a paradigm shift—a change in what we’re used to and what we can count on—and we have to adjust accordingly. We have to take actions that reset our lives to be consistent with the new conditions. Sometimes this reset is healthy and appropriate. Other times it can be based on fear and worst-case scenarios. We are likely making both irrational and rational adjustments. It is important to recognize the nature of adjustments we’re making and try to ensure that they are healthy and constructive.

Denial—not believing what we see

Another fear-based response is denial. Denial can take many forms, from taking time to make the adjustments necessary to keep safe all the way to conspiracy theories about the virus not being real. Denial is a common response to crises or disasters—we don’t want to believe something that’s upsetting, but when we’re ultimately faced with the facts and their consequences, it’s vital to identify and heed legitimate sources of information and guidance. It’s important to not allow denial, and all the emotions that cause it, to get in the way of appropriate and necessary behaviors. Denial can happen at both the individual and societal levels. The delayed and inadequate responses of the leadership in many countries, including the U.S., was due to denial of the extent and dangers of the virus, and has had catastrophic consequences. In these cases, the fear is less about loss of lives and livelihood, and more about fear of losing authority or legitimacy.

In dire situations with tragic consequences, fear is a natural response. We can allow that fear to overwhelm us and drive our thoughts and behaviors, or we can be aware when it arises and be vigilant against harmful consequent behaviors.

We all feel fear, but it’s up to us to not let it take control of us.

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