Is fear such a bad thing?

Mar 20, 2020

Some people are claiming we will have more negative consequences from being afraid of Covid-19 than the virus itself.  They subscribe to the traditional view of stress and fear.  This revolves around avoiding the fight/flight/freeze response, ‘because it’s bad for you’ and trying to be calm or avoid stress instead.

Well that’s pretty hard to do when there are concerns about health, job security and financial worries!

There are however ways of thinking about stress and fear which are more useful.  It can help you perform better in a high-pressure situation and whilst many claim that fear and stress ‘suppresses the immune system and is harmful to health’ a certain level of stress can actually be healthy for you. Research[1]suggests some stress can actually help physical recovery and boost your immunity, leaving your body stronger and healthier.

It’s about your mindset

The mindset you hold about stress does have a big effect on your health. In one study 30,000 adults in the US were asked about how much stress they experienced in the prior year and whether they believed that stress was harmful. Eight years later the records showed high levels of stress had increased the risk of dying by 43 %, but only for those who viewed stress as being harmful to health. Those who had high stress levels but did not view it as harmful actually had the lowest incidence of death than anyone in the study.

Why should this be? Your stress mindset may well have a big impact on how you respond to the stress as well how you experience it. The short-term effects of a more positive mindset on your both your physiology and your motivation to take action could have long-term effects on your health. [2]

If you hold the traditional “stress is damaging” mindset, you may well try to avoid or manage the stress in unhealthy ways, such as drinking too much. or try to blank the stress out. Daniel Wegener, a Harvard social psychologist, identified a phenomenon called ironic error. This is where the more forcefully you push your thoughts away, the more they call out for your attention. This can be seen in those waking up in the middle of the night with worries or their thoughts racing.

However, if you hold a “stress can be enhancing” mindset, you are more likely to use the stress as a source of energy and as motivation to focus on ways to achieve a better outcome. This doesn’t mean that strategies for reducing or coping with stress are not effective, but that the mindset you chose to adopt with these strategies might well have a big impact on the outcomes.

It helps to find a positive side of any stress.

The reason the fear and stress response is still with us, and hasn’t been lost through the evolutionary process, is because it is useful. It improves your body and mind functions so you can meet an immediate threat. When you encounter adversity, you will automatically focus your energy on resolving the threat. This narrowing of focus helps you to process relevant information faster and hormones such as cortisol and DHEA are released that send energy to muscles and boost your memory and aid thinking[3]

The theory of defensive pessimism suggests that people can also use the stress of worrying about a potential outcome as a motivator for proactively problem solving.[4] If utilised well and at the right level this type of motivation can be beneficial, putting you in the optimal position to do what needs to be done.  Interestingly it is how you perceive the stressor that matters most. E.g. as a positive challenge rather than a threat. [5]

Can you find the silver lining?

 Dr Kelly McGonigal [6]makes a compelling case that reframing stress as a positive and knowing that you can have different response is a better mindset to have.  There is a benefit to finding an upside within any adversity. This doesn’t mean you have to completely reframe the situation as a ‘good thing’. Rather that within the downside there may be a silver lining.

Maybe you have an increased appreciation for how your life is normally or see the situation as a chance to set different life or business goals. The current situation may mean you develop more mental toughness, get different perspectives, have clearer priorities or an even an increased sense of meaningfulness.

There is much to be gained in having a more nuanced view  that recognises that while too much stress and fear, for too long, can affect your health and performance, at the right level it can be enhancing.

So can your fear and stress level be too high?

There is no doubt that when we have too much stress, or are stressed for too long, we are not in the best place to deal with issues and are far from operating at our best. Too high a level of stress in the short term can cause your performance to crash.  I call this level ‘feeling CRAP’ and is characterised by

  • Contraction – we fall back into set and repetitive patterns of thinking and retreat from others.
  • Reaction – we make knee jerk decisions and react rather than responding with consideration.
  • Analysis Paralysis – we go around and around churning things over, not making a decision.
  • Pain – we feel hurt or angry and may lash out.

This contrasts to when we are COOL. This is where we feel far more resourceful.

  • Connected – we accept we have to deal with the situation and take the opportunity to support others and to ask for support ourselves.
  • Objective – we recognise we are probably distorting the reality of the situation and seek to step back and question the story we are telling about it.
  • Open – we notice what is happening to others and try to also understand their perspective.
  • Learn – we treat the situation as an opportunity to grow our knowledge and get curious, we feel we have the capacity to rise to the challenge.

Cool is different to calm. You still feel challenged and stretched, but your response is fundamentally different to a fight, flight or freeze response. I’ll be writing more about how to take control of your levels of fear and stress to be able to access more useful levels and have responses that work for you.

Keep Cool And Carry On



[1]Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2013, Vol. 104, No. 4, 716–733

[2]Crum, A.J., Salovey, P. & Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104 (4), 716-733.

[3](Cahill, Gorski, & Le, 2003).

[4]Norem & Cantor, 1986

[5]Fevre, Mark Le; Kolt, Gregory S.; Matheny, Jonathan. 1 Jan 2006. Journal of Managerial Psychology 21 : 547–565.

[6]Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress, Vermillion 2016

If you are interested in developing your leadership or creating more effective teams we would love to have a conversation.

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