The Science Behind The Fear Our Brains Create For Us

Your brain is kind of a dick, but it means well.
The Science Behind The Fear Our Brains Create For Us

Man, remember the good old days when we thought climate change was going to kill us all? Or nuclear war? Well, this is the year we get to hold Pandemic's beer while humankind gets collectively tea-bagged. In these days of social distancing, quarantines, and widespread lockdowns, it's easy (and not illogical) to be afraid. But when fear becomes a lifestyle -- a place we live rather than a spot we visit -- it ceases to be helpful and can even become destructive. Here's a look at some of the science behind why we're all so afraid ...

Uncertainty is Breeding Fear and Anxiety

Pandemic stuff isn't just "all over the news," it's the only news -- affecting virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. We fear for the future of what may or may not happen and it's that uncertainty that's driving our brains into a tunnel of fear. As a species, we want to know what's coming. Studies have shown that humans would rather get a definite electrical shock right now, than possibly get one at some point in the future. In other words, we'd prefer the immediate, known pain of butthole tasing to the lingering possibility of a butthole tasing that might not ever occur. Furthermore, research subjects told to anticipate an unpleasant stimulus showed significantly greater stress levels than those who knew when one was coming. Sound familiar?

Basically, a threat like Covid-19 that is "unpredictable in its timing, intensity, frequency, or duration" and "elicits a generalized feeling of apprehension and hypervigilance" creates something called "anticipatory anxiety." But because the effects of the virus run the gamut from "none at all" to "dead," we're basically dealing with anticipatory anxiety that's jacked up on steroids, laced with meth. This is why it's so hard to stop watching the news -- our "perceived absence of salient, key, or sufficient information," leads us to compulsively scroll our feed until our thumbs get tiny superhero six-packs from the workout.

But hey: none of us have been guilty of that in the last week, right?

But while seeing the latest death statistics for others in your age range might make you feel temporarily better, research suggests that the best ways to combat excruciating uncertainty involve disconnecting a bit. Meditation can help, as do
"flow" activities like video games that require concentration. But one study determined that the most effective way to alleviate uncertainty discomfort is to do or watch something that causes you to experience "awe, or a state of wonder" - like a sunrise, or beautiful music, or whatever (non-respiratory virus) thing temporarily takes your breath away. But do it while staying home and washing your hands.

Our Bodies React to the Suffering We See as if We Experienced It Ourselves

One of the wonderful things about human beings is our ability to have sympathy for one another and share each other's pain. Knowing that we're all in this together and feeling connected - even electronically - is beneficial to both our physical and mental health. But when we watch others suffering, as we see all day every day in the media, our bodies start to take that shit personally.

Researchers have determined that our brains process other people's pain in the same way it processes our own pain. Studies even found that emotional empathy led to increased inflammation throughout the body and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause a host of health problems over time. An additional study took things a step further and determined that this process of empathy can amplify our own fear. Furthermore, when study participants watched videos of other people being subjected to electric shocks, researchers found that this increased fear persisted for days after the "social learning episode." (Was this study conducted by Dr. Jonathan Crane?)

So, should we ignore the horrifying images of people around the world gasping for breath and dying? Do we just forego the footage taken inside an Italian ICU and continue to take the ability to fill our lungs for granted? Well, research shows that while emotional empathy can be damaging to our physical and mental health, compassionate empathy can also inspire us to respond in ways that are helpful, constructive, and not harmful to us. Instead of imagining ourselves in the position of people we see suffering, aim to imagine how they must feel and how you might be able to help them. And a great way to help is by staying home and washing your hands.

We're Hardwired With a "Negativity Bias," Meaning We Pay More Attention to Anything That's Bad

Okay, so we've given the human brain props for being empathetic. It's now time to give it shit for being unfairly biased. Bottom line: your brain pays more attention to bad things than good things. Bad emotions, bad news, badminton -- all of them are processed by our brain's amygdalas faster more thoroughly than their positive counterparts. Because of negativity bias, bad impressions and stereotypes form more quickly and linger longer than the good ones. Which is why your friends can all remember that one time you peed your pants in college, but not the rest of your four years of clean collegiate underwear. And for our amygdalas, coronavirus news is basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of awfulness it wants to immediately devour.

The Science Behind The Fear Our Brains Create For Us
David Pereiras/Shutterstock

Even before the Covid-19 coverage began, the news wasn't exactly a parade of feel-good, upbeat stories. Sure, some (or a lot) of that has to do with
journalistic practices and the media's exaggeration of crappy events, but that's not the entire story. Because of our innate negativity bias, we tend to pay more attention to negative news stories, and studies show that across all cultures and nationalities most humans have a stronger physiological response to bad news than to good.

One study looked specifically at the impact of watching "negatively valenced" news coverage. Participants who watched a 14-minute program showed increased overall anxiety and sadness, as well as a "significant increase in the tendency to catastrophize a personal worry." That's correct - watching negative news stories literally makes our personal problems seem worse. The kicker? This effect applies even if our worry isn't related to the content of the news coverage. That means watching a mere 14 minutes of coronavirus coverage can make every concern we have, even unrelated ones, seem significantly worse than they really are. Which is yet another reason to stay home and wash your hands (no TV in there).

And We're Absolutely Terrified Of Losing Control

To make an admittedly sweeping generalization, humans like to be in control. We like the driver's seat. We want to hold the remote. We don't like to be told what to eat, what to wear, or asked "Is Pepsi is okay?" We value self-determination, and we want to feel like our future will be whatever we make it. But then a pandemic comes along and craps all over our nice, comfy sense of control and sends us into a downward spiral of fear and toilet paper. Lots and lots of toilet paper.

The Science Behind The Fear Our Brains Create For Us
Sergey Kamshylin/Shutterstock
Seriously: enjoy your apocalypse movies now because in the future they are going to have way more emphasis on ass hygiene.

When we panic shop, we're doing it because it's a coping mechanism, not because we need two dozen cases of Mountain Dew. The truth is, beyond handwashing and social distancing, there's not a ton we can do to control our risk of getting sick, and when we lack control in one area, we seek to make up for it in others. In the face of possible death, we want to know we'll be able to wipe our butts. This is compounded by the fact that we feel a burning need to take some sort of action, yet doctors' and government officials' continued advice is simply, "stay home and wash your hands." Completing such a (seemingly) simple task isn't allowing us to scratch the need-to-prepare itch, so we hoard hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and bleach to cope.

In the end, all panic purchasing a bunch of stuff you really don't need is going to give you is a false sense of control and a massive credit card bill. But what do we do? If we're afraid, then we're afraid, right? Psychologists say we should recognize that panic buying -- that all the things we're doing, really, are natural responses to the stress we're all feeling. But that doesn't mean we can't rise above our knee-jerk reactions. Let's be mindful of how we're feeling and what we're doing. Let's "move from our automatic response to a thoughtful or reasoned response." And above all else, stay the fuck home and wash your damn hands.

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