2021 Grateful 40: Fear and anxiety

Two words that have been coupling in my mind a lot lately are fear and anxiety. Some might say they’re interrelated, a natural pairing perhaps. Others differ.

An article on the Biology of Fear says…

…although both are alerting signals, they appear to prepare the body for different actions. Anxiety is a generalised response to an unknown threat or internal conflict, whereas fear is focused on known external danger.

With COVID numbers in Hungary spiralling out of control (or if not out of control, to the dizzy realms of downright frightening) is it anxiety or fear that the country is feeling? As individuals around the world come to terms with COVID’s power to change lives overnight, is it fear or anxiety they’re feeling? In my experience, it’s a very unhealthy smattering of both.

COVID is a known threat (fear) yet so much about it is still unknown (anxiety).

The nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon (aka the Prince of Preachers and the Preaching Boy Wonder and the Pulpit Buffoon) reckoned that

…anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but…today of its strengths.

I think he had something there.

I’ve read many comments over the last few months saying that governments have politicised the pandemic using it to strike fear in their citizens and go beyond the bounds of what’s needed to uphold public safety. The media has been accused of whipping us into a right old fear-fuelled frenzy. How mad did we go over those loo rolls, eh?

The anti-lockdown anti-maskers are afraid, too, maybe not of COVID but of the consequences for the economy and civil liberty and the world’s mental health. Those staying home and wearing masks get to fear it all.

There is so much fear around. So much anxiety.

I remember back to the early days, some twelve months ago, when I’d change my clothes and shower after coming in with the shopping. That initial fear was similar to that experienced by the chap who went hiking and returned to his cabin badly bruised and scratched.*

‘What happened?’ his wife asked.
‘I met a snake on the trail,’ he answered.
‘Don’t you remember,’ his wife responded, ‘the park ranger told us yesterday that none of the snakes up here are poisonous?’
Her husband replied, ‘They don’t have to be poisonous if they can make you jump off a twenty-foot cliff!’

I know more now. I’m more pragmatic. But fear and anxiety are my latent companions.

A recent article in The Atlantic** speaks about bringing back the nervous breakdown. Back at the turn of the twentieth century…

The nervous breakdown was not a medical condition, but a sociological one. It implicated a physical problem—your “nerves”—not a mental one. And it was a onetime event, not a permanent condition. It provided sanction for a pause and reset that could put you back on track.

There was no scandal, no shame, no mortification. Having a nervous breakdown back then simply said…

You have put up a good fight, but the odds were too heavy against you … Nature has warned you and given you respite. The breakdown is a definite indication that you are still functioning, and have within you the material for recovery.

Thinking of the nervous part of the descriptive, I have a clear memory of being in an aunt’s kitchen with other aunts and cousins also visiting. I might have been 10 at time, no older. When asked how I was, I parroted a line I’d heard some random adult say announcing to all and sundry that my nerves were at me. The answer I got fell far short of the sympathy I was expecting. A visiting aunt quickly told me that I was too young to have nerves. I’ve since wondered when I’d be old enough.

Fast forward a few decades on the social scale and nervous breakdowns became less about nerves and more about a person’s mental state…

Diseases like major depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—diagnosed and treated by specialised doctors dispensing specialised drugs—replaced the nervous-breakdown catchall.

Enter COVID. What are we doing to cope? How are we managing this nervousness, this fear, this anxiety? Mindfulness. Meditation. Access bars. Online therapy. Each to their own.

Will it be enough, I wonder. What will the fall-out be? Will the legacy of this pandemic be less about lost lives and languishing lungs and more about a growing inability to cope with a new reality, a national nervousness?

The article is well worth a read. As the author Jerry Useem concludes, perhaps we’d be better off with…

…a more economically feasible and culturally acceptable nervous breakdown now than something worse later on.

Thanks, DF, for sending me the link. I’m always grateful for a new perspective.



*Excerpt from UCB Word for the Day


4 Responses

  1. I didn’t understand Access Bars, so I clicked – it sounds rather like phrenology, which I thought had been done away with. If Feremciek tere weren’t so far away I might try it!

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