• Dr. Paul D'Alton

We're so much more than our fear - as brave frontline staff are showing

Fear is hard-wired into the human brain and is a completely normal response when we are in immediate danger. When fear strikes, our internal fight-flight-freeze response gets switched on and we go into a state of high alert.

In this state of hyper-­vigilance, we may feel on edge, wound up, irritable or tense. Our breathing may be shallow, our hands may be clammy, as though we are ready to fight. We might have a powerful urge to get away, to run away, to hide, to take flight until it's all over. Or there may be moments when we freeze, perhaps on hearing the latest coronavirus figures, frozen by the fear of contamination or overwhelmed at the scale of the crisis unfolding around us.


The fight-flight-freeze res­ponse has evolved deep in the human brain over many millions of years in order to keep us safe and ensure our survival in a dangerous world. Our world is currently a more dangerous place because of Covid-19.


For many of us, the human fight-flight-freeze threat res­ponse is in full swing.


Covid-19 is indeed life-threatening and can literally put the fear of death into us. The wider economic implications of Covid-19 also strike fear in the hearts of many. The economic uncertainty for individuals and families is profoundly fear-­inducing. So, feeling on high alert, on edge and afraid is completely normal.


However, we know that living for prolonged periods of time with the fight-flight-freeze mode switched on is physically and emotionally exhausting. Research demonstrates that in this state of continuous hyper-vigilance our capacity to respond creatively to life events shuts down and we can make bad decisions; our empathy for other people decreases, our relationships suffer and our overall wellbeing and mental health decline.


There is an alternative. The fight-flight-freeze reaction is only part of the story. Our ancestors learned pretty quickly that their survival on the savannah was greatly enhanced by co-operating with their fellow human beings.


By learning to co-operate, to pool their physical and psychological resources, our ancestors flourished.


We are so much more than our fear. We instinctively grab the child who attempts to cross the road and doesn't see the motorbike coming. We instinctively grab the person who trips on the stairs. We are hard-wired to care, to co-operate and to nurture.


This instinct to co-operate and to help each other propelled the staggering response to the HSE call for staff that saw more than 50,000 people override their fear and activate their caring response. The thousands of volunteers up and down this country are doing the same thing - they are overriding fear in favour of co-operation and kindness.


Our frontline staff are doing this on an hourly basis. They are living examples of the human capacity to get bigger than fear; to feel the fear - yes, to make safe and wise decisions - yes, but not getting trapped by fear.


Right now, our survival is dependent on our co-operation and not getting trapped by fear. The greatest act of co-­operation, the greatest expression of our love for other people is to follow four rules: stay at home, keep two metres distance when outside for essentials, fastidious hand-­washing and practising good respiratory etiquette.


Fear has its place. Fear is a completely normal response to immediate danger but we need to find and come to terms with our fear and move beyond it. If we get stuck in fear, we will not be able to come together to beat Covid-19. It is no longer a case of survival of the fittest - it is now a case of survival of the co-operative.

Originally published in The Irish Independent 07/04/20

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