With my meditation classes suspended and massage therapy on hold until very recently, this last year has given me plenty of time to think, and one thing I have found myself focusing on a lot is FEAR.
It’s led me to read about it, meditate on it, discuss with friends and family and work on processing my own feelings around the various fears I have felt.
Sometimes we need to feel that fear response, of course, it can be a helpful natural response to a dangerous situation.
We’ve focused here before about ‘fight and flight’ and how our bodies respond to it on a physical level (faster heart rate, increased cortisol levels, higher blood pressure etc).
We have also explored the ways in which health can suffer when we get stuck in a ‘fight and flight’ state in everyday life, responding to life stresses as if we are being attacked in the jungle.
Sadly, for many people, that is what is happening right now.
News, information and messaging are at times so harsh and relentless that regardless of actual personal danger many people are now transfixed in a permanent state of fear.
Fear is one of the most basic, and yet most powerful emotions we have. Yet because it is basic, it can be easily triggered, and once we are fearful we are very easy to influence.
Even one minor bad experience can literally change your life forever.
For example, one evening in my twenties, after a night out in town I was walking home alone and there were two men walking behind me, about 100 yards back.
I had no idea of their intentions, they could have just been walking home themselves but in my mind, my danger radar was running.
About halfway home I looked back and they were much closer and whilst they showed no obvious aggression I was in full fight or flight mode.
I sped up as subtly as I could, and as I rounded a corner into a street near my house I bolted.
I calculated that before they rounded the corner I would be within reach of home, and I was soon safe inside but pumping adrenaline.
That was around 20 years ago, yet I can remember every detail to this day and the memory makes my heart pump again.
Nothing bad actually happened to me, and it might have all been my imagination, but the powerful fear I felt did change me.
For a long time, I found myself hyper-focused on my surroundings when I was out and about, even in relatively safe environments. I was always mindful of how aware I was of those around me, who had been following me and for how long.
Even now I instinctively look in window reflections to see behind me, even to the point that I am aware of which way shadows are facing and that if I can see my shadow ahead of me that means I could see someone approaching me from behind.
All this, from one experience that could have been completely made up in my imagination. That is the power of fear, it changed the way I act and respond for the rest of my life.
Now I like to think of myself as a relatively switched on person.
I don’t think I am particularly easily manipulated. I have my own opinion and I like to check information myself before forming an opinion.
Yet one minor experience changed my life forever and I wonder about how this current global crisis is going to have affected millions of people around the world.
The sheer amount of fearful news reports, adverts, social media posts, radio broadcasts, the closure of businesses, the restriction on travel in our own country, let alone abroad is going to have a huge mental health impact which will be felt for generations.
It is not just us and our children that will be feeling the effects of it, but likely future generations as well. Mass fear, just like personal fear, can change the direction of societies.
As a meditation teacher and massage therapist, I have done a lot of work to manage and reduce fear, both my own and that of others.
I like to think I am quite self-aware, but I don’t deny that I too have felt the effects of this relentless barrage of fear-inducing news and information which seems to be beaming down from the world’s greatest powers.
My concern is that whilst I have many coping mechanisms and a lot of support, many other people are less informed, less able to manage their emotions, less knowledgeable about the way fear works and less able to recognise their own physical and psychological reactions to fear.
I see and meet many people who are feeling trapped in a mentally unhealthy place induced by fear.
We will have to wait to see whether subjecting populations to so much fear was justifiable, but I believe the current mental health crisis will be long term and comes at a great cost to humanity, perhaps a price higher than the epidemic itself.
So, in the face of all the fearful messaging, I have had to manage my own mental health this year in circumstances I could never have anticipated. I am thankful that I am trained in techniques and strategies that enabled me to do this.
Here I want to share some of these ideas in case you have recognised that your own mental well being has been compromised by an overdose of fear.
We CAN learn to manage our own mental wellbeing; we CAN take back the power to regulate our own emotions and develop the skills to bring your fear response back into a realm of normality.
To do this first you need knowledge. Knowledge is power, and in this case, it is the power to live your life more as you choose, and less how someone else has decided for you.
When they are in a state of fear humans are easy to manipulate and control, many regimes in history have exploited this fact.
There are well-recognised techniques that can be used to control and influence people who are fearful and you can learn to spot them. By doing this they will, bit by bit, lose their influence over you and you will feel more in control.
Below I have summarised some of these techniques and made some suggestions as to how we can steer our way through.
Repetition of a phrase or symbol
WW2 war criminal Joseph Goebbels said:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie.
It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”.
What Goebbels is really explaining here is the power of repetition.
The human brain, on hearing something repeated over and over again will come to believe it, even if at first they don’t think it’s true.
It doesn’t have to be a lie, advertisers use this technique (and so do cults) all the time and we use it to teach children things they need to memorise.
Repetitive phrases are often accompanied by the same logos/emblems; they appear on every advert and poster. This repetition of a symbol implants and reinforces the thought into your subconscious and that will start to influence your behaviour.
Learning to spot this in media or organisational messaging will enable you to see it in action, and when you see it happening you can recognise what is going on...
When you recognise that someone or something is setting out to influence your mind and the way you think, you can take a moment to step back and consider for yourself whether that is something you accept, believe in and want to become part of your thought process, or not.
This is especially important if the message you see is based on threat or fear - basically, you can protect yourself by choosing what you want to think, rather than allowing it to ‘download’ automatically.
Technique 2 - Changing information keeps us fearful
Constant changing of information, moving the goalposts, putting out conflicting ‘facts’, burying information - all this leaves us feeling lost as to what the genuine, unbiased situation is.
We remain in a constant state of confusion, insecurity and fear.
When we cannot work out the truth ourselves we are more likely to just accept the most popular narrative (especially if, as above, it is constantly repeated).
This is a hard one to fight as even the research we do online is influenced by what the search engine companies want us to see.
To show how searching online can distort your views, imagine that you watch a video on YouTube about the earth being, in fact, flat.
You’ll find you'll get shown more and more videos on the subject; your Facebook feed will fill with ‘flat earth’ theories and then other related conspiracy theories that back this up.
Soon you find yourself down a rabbit hole where the majority of the news/reports/videos you are shown are about ‘proving’ the earth is flat, and with that repetition, you can slowly start to wonder if it could be true…
Now you might think that you would never be persuaded that far, but it is amazing what can take hold in the minds of the most rational people when they are not aware of how their minds are being influenced and moulded.
The take-home message is that In order to find the truth you need to look at all sides, question everything, challenge strong, heavily promoted stories and ask WHY?.
Check the sources of your information.
If your information is coming from legitimate, objective websites, peer-reviewed articles/papers, unbiased media (if there is such a thing) then you will likely be able to fact check them and feel safe that the information contained is correct.
However, information from any outlets with heavy commercial interests such as most social media, mainstream media that relies on advertising to survive, or politically driven institutions like the BBC should always be examined with healthy cynicism.
Anyone can write or announce anything and make it seem legitimate, but with a little effort, you can usually find the source and check it out.
I’m not saying everything you read or see is a lie, but the power you need to control the fear you feel when absorbing information comes from questioning everything and being confident that you have made up your own mind, not have it made up for you.
If you see a research paper published then do a bit of research and find out who funded the paper. It is well known that much research is funded by companies who will gain from favourable findings for their products or ideas.
Always look for alternative arguments and arrive at your opinion by balancing a range of views.
It is tiring I’ll grant you, but I’d rather be tired and knowledgeable than confused and fearful.
Setting us against each other makes us fearful
Do you remember the start of the current national crisis, people were just becoming aware of a possible threat to health and the world banded together?
Kindness groups erupted across Facebook, everyone wanted to help their neighbours, collecting food for them, checking in on the elderly, food donations. Nothing was too much for the people around you, even the ones you had never spoken to across the road.
A year later, after an overdose of news, information, speculation and aggressive messaging from the Government, many people are filled with fear - and where did the ‘blitz’ spirit go?
Now we have ‘marshalls’, fines, people monitoring and judging each other, mask controversies, people on opposite sides of every single theory and argument. All these behaviours and consequences are not natural, we are not being our normal selves, we are being driven by fear.
If you find yourself being pulled into a ‘taking sides’ mentality, or starting to feel anger or disapproval in a way you haven’t before, step back and make sure your feelings are ‘real’.
Fear flips us into extreme views and other people can easily influence this. Remember nearly everything about life works better when we are balanced and harmonious, when we listen to other people, when we make room for a range of views and when we are kind first and foremost.
In the midst of mass fear people are quick to block, ban, call out, criticise and even hurt - that wasn’t how we were meant to be and when we feel angry we stress and hurt ourselves.
In summary, many of us have experienced an assault on our mental health because our minds have had an overdose of fearful ideas.
Those ideas have been reinforced and repeated and we have become used to behaving as if we are constantly under a huge threat.
No one can live under a continuous feeling of threat and be their best mentally or physically.
To recover from this we need to recognise the things that lead to the amplification of threat and avoid them.
We need to check out the truth to find the accurate level of threat and what is really going on.
And finally, we need to remember that we live all the time, even in ‘normal’ times with people who share different views based on different experiences and knowledge and that we are at our best and least stressed when we are tolerant, understanding and kind, even when we don’t agree.