Health and Wellness

How fear influences your behavior, and how to cope

@christinacorso | Twenty20

Pandemics are scary, no matter how you spin it. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are figuring out ways to adjust to life in quarantine, as well as coping with increased levels of anxiety and stress.

In addition to trying to stay safe, protect loved ones and reduce the spread of COVID-19, it's also important to be mindful about our emotional responses to the pandemic and the news.

Fear and panic in particular have the potential to "get very problematic if we're not careful about it," Lauren Murray, a clinical psychologist and associate scientist at Johns Hopkins University, School of Public Health in the Department of Mental Health and International Health, tells CNBC Make It. Because our fear response can have a direct effect on our behaviors, she says. 

Indeed, fear and uncertainty are strong emotions and natural responses to things that we don't understand that threaten our safety and health. Here's how fear influences our behavior, and how to cope.

Fear is normal...

"Our fear centers drive us, and they save us," Murray says.

Your body's fear response starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala, she explains. Several natural physiological changes take place that help us prepare to be more efficient in a dangerous situation: our pupils dilate, our breathing accelerates and our heart rate and blood pressure rise, she says.

While this is a normal human response, it can feel like your amygdala is in overdrive. In the face of fear, you might turn to different behavioral patterns than normal (like loading up on toilet paper), Murray says.

The way to combat this is to "pull ourselves more into the rational brain," she says. Do that by noticing when you feel nervous or scared, and remind yourself of rational facts you know are true: for example, "There will be enough food."

… and it's contagious

Seeing other people panic-shopping will make you want to do the same, L. Kevin Chapman, clinical psychologist and founder and director of the Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, tells CNBC Make It.

"You have this psychological tendency to be like, 'They're stocking up on water bottles, I probably wouldn't need those otherwise, but apparently, I need water bottles,'" he says.

This is a social psychology concept called "conformity." 

"We are social beings," so it's only natural that we'd want to engage in this way and copy our peers, Murray says. "It's like that with everything: our facial expressions, our emotions and our behaviors," she says.

A simple gut check can go a long way if you're not sure if you're being irrational or just following suit. Shopping in particular is an activity that people tend to turn to when they want to feel in control. Ask yourself: Do you really need to go to the supermarket, or are you just following suit? 

Know your triggers

Check in with your emotions and how your body feels often, Murray says. Do you feel tense? Take a few deep breaths.

You might remind yourself that your body and mind are "doing exactly what they should be doing, but I'm reacting to be healthy and safe," she says.

Also be aware of what triggered your fear response. For example, if you find that you always launch into stress or anxiety after reading Twitter, that's probably not the best activity for you.

"There's a lot of different triggers, and what triggers me might not trigger you into this sort of fear response," she says.

Reduce fear, don't eliminate it

As mentioned, fear is an appropriate response to something threatening that you don't understand.

"The challenge, I think, comes in not seeing fear is a bad thing or trying to completely get rid of it," Murray says. Ideally, you should reduce the amount of fear enough so that you can function.  

The best ways to do that are to do things that make you happy, whether it's binge-watching Netflix or going for a walk outside, she says. These activities are super important because they trigger your brain to "function in a more healthy way," she says.

Maintaining a routine, reaching out to others and managing the amount of news that you watch are also helpful during this time, she says.

Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years

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