This past Friday I got two emails four minutes apart. Two of my clients closed their doors and half of my income evaporated overnight. This is happening everywhere, with millions of people faring far worse. With the novel coronavirus COVID-19, we’re living in a moment of extreme uncertainty and the only thing certain about uncertainty is that fear always follows. But is fear something we should be afraid of? Fear often causes problems in our private lives, but can be part of the solution in our public lives.

For as miserable as fear makes us, its real job is to direct behavior. The first thing fear does is freeze us in place. Most of us understand that when we feel fear, we fight/flee/freeze. That’s right, but it happens in reverse order. According to fear researcher Prof. Joseph LeDoux, you “freeze first; flee if you can; and fight if you must.” So freezing is our default response to fear. It’s our brain’s go-to strategy. 

In the privacy of our apartments and homes, freezing is a natural–but surprisingly unhelpful–response for dealing with the fallout of COVID-19. After losing my clients, for example, freezing has increased my anxiety, but decreased my ability to pay our rent at the end of the month. What helps is to do the opposite of what our brains suggest. If the diagnosis is fear, the prescription is action. Whether it’s calling my landlords, postponing a loan payment, or crunching the numbers on my family’s newly shrunken finances, the biggest thing that helps with the anxiety is taking action. 

As I’ve watched my own behavior over the past two weeks, I’ve oscillated from paralyzed news scrolling to making plans with my wife for different possible scenarios. Whenever I make plans or take action in my personal life, my fear always subsides. But no matter how much I passively consume the news, my fear always amplifies. When I focus on what I can control, I feel in control. When I focus on what I can’t control, I feel out of control. 

The irony, of course, is that if fear freezes action in our private lives, we will suffer. But if fear doesn’t freeze action in our public lives, we will suffer even more.

I have a brother who is on the front lines of the COVID-19 fight as an emergency room doctor in Georgia. His hospital was hit hard early on. A seemingly innocent gathering of church-goers in the suburbs of Atlanta became the epicenter of the pandemic in his state. The door greeter later tested positive and, my brother suspects, spread the virus to many that he shook hands with. Without a healthy amount of fear about spreading or getting the virus, we carry on with business as usual. We become too casual about leaving our homes to go to the store, run a few errands, or gather together for our normal weekly events. 

But the lessons of how to ethically use public fear are all around us. While France, among other European countries, are on lock down, they’ve been using a small dose of fear to deter public behavior. In Paris, for example, you need to fill out a form to go to the grocery store. It’s the government’s version of a hall pass. You write your name, address, reason for leaving, and sign the document. If you’re out, you must have the form with you at all times. It may sound elementary, and it’s unclear how consistently it’s being enforced, but it still gives you the sense that you’re accountable to the greater good and if you get caught, you could be fined. In other words, people have a healthy amount of public fear that if they go out, without good reason, they could get in trouble. Without consequences for going out unnecessarily, there is no fear, no freezing, and no pandemic containment. 

While in private contexts, fear may harm us; in public contexts, fear may actually help. Fear is neither friend nor foe. Right now, it is both. Only in understanding that fear’s first job is to freeze us can we overcome it in our personal lives and harness it in our public lives. Hopefully, this will help us do what we all want: to save more lives.

References: LeDoux, Joseph. Anxious: Using The Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Penguin, 2015.