We are all hurting, probably more than most people can remember. 2020 has been for many people “annus horribilis“. Pandemics, elections, lockdowns and the general feeling of insecurity. Every day, reading the newspaper or a quick scroll on social media will bring up all kind of less than positive news. Even if some of it is fake or speculation, it has an effect on how we see things. For many people, this year has brought an increase in anxiety and general depression. I hear it often from my clients who are struggling with new routines, restrictions and loss of opportunity. The world is a different place and people are more anxious. Wherever you turn, you see something negative happening and even if you look closely for more positive items, it hard to find a balance. It brings out the fear and anxiety in all of us. How do we cope in a world that has seemingly gone wrong? Political unrest dividing families and relationships, lockdowns restricting our movements and a daily dose of terrorism, natural disasters all have an effect on our psyche. Fear is with us all the time. The fear can lead to anxiety, procrastination and catastrophic thinking but many people suffer from deep seated fear, often hidden, that drives their behaviour.
Medical experts tell us that the anxious feeling we get when we’re afraid is a standardised biological reaction. It’s pretty much the same set of body signals, whether we’re afraid of getting bitten by a dog, getting turned down for a date, getting our taxes done or if we cannot identity the cause. Fear, like all other emotions, is basically information. It offers us knowledge and understanding—if we choose to accept it—of our psycho-biological status. And according to various studies done, there are only five basic fears that we can attribute our fear to, out of which almost all of our other so-called fears are manufactured. These are:
Extinction—the fear of annihilation, of ceasing to exist. This is a more fundamental way to express it than just calling it “fear of death.” The idea of no longer being arouses a primary existential anxiety in all normal humans. Consider that panicky feeling you get when you look over the edge of a high building.
Mutilation—the fear of losing any part of our precious bodily structure; the thought of having our body’s boundaries invaded, or of losing the integrity of any organ, body part, or natural function. Anxiety about animals, such as bugs, spiders, snakes, and other creepy things arises from fear of mutilation.
Loss of Autonomy—the fear of being immobilised, paralysed, restricted, enveloped, overwhelmed, entrapped, imprisoned, smothered, or otherwise controlled by circumstances beyond our control. In physical form, it’s commonly known as claustrophobia, but it also extends to our social interactions and relationships.
Separation—the fear of abandonment, rejection, and loss of connectedness; of becoming a non-person—not wanted, respected, or valued by anyone else. The “silent treatment,” when imposed by a group or significant other, can have a devastating psychological effect on its target.
Ego-death—the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism of profound self-disapproval that threatens the loss of integrity of the Self; the fear of the shattering or disintegration of one’s constructed sense of lovability, capability, and worthiness.
Some other emotions we know by various popular names are just aliases for these primary fears. If you track them down to their most basic levels, the basic fears show through. Jealousy, for example, is an expression of the fear of separation, or devaluation: “She’ll value him more than she values me.” At its extreme, it can express the fear of ego-death: “I’ll be a worthless person.” Envy works the same way. Shame and guilt express the fear of—or the actual condition of—separation and even ego-death. The same is true for embarrassment and humiliation. Fear of rejection? That’s fear of separation, and probably also fear of ego-death. The terror many people have at the idea of having to speak in public is basically fear of ego-death. Fear of intimacy, or “fear of commitment,” is basically fear of losing one’s autonomy. Agoraphobia can be attributed to most if not all of the basic five as can a general anxiety disorder.
If we truly see fear and anxiety as information, then we can use the signals given by our body to understand and aid recovery. In these current times, it is easy to be overwhelmed by existential fears and anxiety and a way has to be found to cope. For example, many areas in the world have started lockdown again and some will be heading into it eventually. This will heighten the feeling of anxiety and helplessness. We have to do all we can to counter any feelings we have that might drive us to depression and anxiety. It calls for an action- based approach.
Acceptance: There are parts of any crisis that we cannot influence but we can influence our reaction to them. Concentrating on our reaction and what we need to accept is crucial.
Listen to your body: Anxiety is associated with physical as well as mental input that triggers our fight or flight response. Knowing how you react to anxiety will help you form a strategy to cope with it. In times of crisis, this can help immensely.
Structure: It is very easy to lose routine when we feel troubled or our lives change. Getting back to that routine is a good place to start. Planning day by day and planning productivity, down time and relaxation into your schedule can help. Plan personal development projects that will maintain your focus.
Abstinence: In these strange times, we can easily make anxiety worse by feasting on news items that are less than positive. Make a choice not to do this. This will also reduce screen time and the feeling of wasting time.
Social and family contact: Many people feeling anxiety and hopelessness will isolate and withdraw. They then find it difficult to reach out to others. Keeping in contact with loved ones and family can help all concerned.
Purpose: Something that is often advised but is difficult to put into operation. Anxiety will put many blocks and hurdles in the way. However, purpose is something we all need to move forward and gain perspective.