‘Fear Is Healthy. Anxiety and Panic Are the Opposite.’
Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer
Welcome to One Day At A Time — a daily column offering science-backed help for living through uncertainty.
I’m an addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist specializing in anxiety and habit change. Each day, I’ll cover a new topic to help us all stay mentally healthy, calm, and connected as we navigate our new world order.
We’re all experiencing some level of fear and anxiety right now. Let’s start by talking about what’s going on inside our brains. Do you wonder why people have been buying what seems like a decade’s worth of toilet paper at the grocery store? What’s more, do you wonder why witnessing this gives you the sudden urge to do the same?
Here’s the science.
Our most basic survival mechanisms are based on fear. When something scary happens to us, we note the experience and learn to avoid it in the future. We inherited this from our ancient ancestors. It is called reward-based learning and it has three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. We see the saber-toothed tiger — that’s the trigger. We run away — that’s the behavior. We live to tell our kids to avoid that part of the savanna — that’s the reward.
At some point over the last million or so years, our brains evolved a new layer, called the neocortex. This “new” brain includes the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in thinking and planning. There’s a catch to that addition. Our prefrontal cortex needs accurate information to plan for the future. A lack of information causes uncertainty, and uncertainty coupled with fear leads to anxiety. That’s key to understand: fear + uncertainty = anxiety.
As we know, there is a lot of uncertainty around the coronavirus right now, which is leading to a lot of anxiety. Anxiety can spread just like a virus through what is called social contagion. Think of social contagion as emotion infection. What do I mean? If you talk to someone on the phone who is anxious, you might get anxious too. If you read social media posts where people are…