Fear: the emotion whose time has come

A psychological perspective on Covid-19.

Peter Nasmyth
24 May 2020, 9.36pm
Pixabay/T.P.Heinz. Pixabay licence.

To say there are two viruses active in our society, the biochemical one and the fear virus in people’s minds, is no great revelation. But the way that the former triggered the latter, along with the pandemic lockdowns spreading across the globe like a self-kneecapping by the human species, is worth viewing from a psychological perspective.

The first question is how such draconian measures were carried out so swiftly and with such extraordinary compliance? Fear, of course, is the answer - using it, or in the coronavirus case, being used by it.

Fear of the virus is really fear of death - one's own, or a close relative's - one step removed. It isn’t catching Covid-19 that so scares the population, more the presence of one’s own mortality lurking inside this invisible, random agent that’s able to strike anyone, anytime, right to the top.

The strength of this reaction is aided by constant, one-sided media reporting, emphasising death totals and ignoring what one might think of as the equally important recoveries - to the extent that the UK often never publishes recoveries at all. However one should be cautious about blame, or shooting the messenger, because the messenger itself is frightened, often by its own reports.

National tendencies to self-infect with the fear virus induce ‘catastrophic thinking’ and are highly infectious in themselves - hence the remarkable spread of lockdowns worldwide. Because fear of death is such a powerful motivator it can overwhelm more considered, conscious reactions. Once activated, the ‘Death Archetype,’ as it was identified by the psychologist C. G Jung, can flare up quickly and take command of human response.

As David Halpern, the Chief Executive of the government's Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) responsible for shaping Covid 19 publicity admitted on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ on April 27, the fear message, ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives,’ “…was so effective too many people were staying at home who should have gone to hospital.” With a 50% reduction in A&E admissions and an increase in home deaths, the BIT have recently changed the message to correct this over-response, encouraging people to go to hospital and not protect the NHS so much.

For those cultural historians who map emotional trends in societies over the decades, the current stimulation of this Death Archetype might even be called cyclical. They claim this tendency or psychological mechanism is, like corona itself, also a permanent resident in human society. It too lies dormant in organisms to be re-awakened every so often in various forms, and then wreak havoc.

Examples include the ways societies can drift into other self-kneecapping events, usually wars. WWI is a classic case (initially popular on both sides). WWII was spawned by similar unconscious imperatives a generation later; witness the dark, death-like, over-heroic imagery of the Nazis, which scared as much as inspired the German people forward, not to mention the hundreds of lesser wars occurring since.

Such actions are always carried out in the name of larger, noble causes. Analytical psychologists such as Sigmund Freud or Jung claim they are driven by unacknowledged feelings seeking to make themselves conscious. Many people harbour an unconscious eagerness for conflict because it exposes emotions they secretly need to see, and then to understand in themselves. Freud went so far as to identify what he called a ‘death drive’ in his essay 'Beyond the Pleasure Principle,' or Thanatos, published in 1920 - interestingly, just after WWI. The death image generated by Covid-19 is directly related, but fortunately does not involve weapons.

Political observers will counter this ‘over-psychologising’ of social behaviour, saying actions like wars are carefully planned and plotted by the power-hungry perpetrators. They can point to well-documented accounts like the book Forging War’ by Mark Thompson, which tracked how the media was systematically exploited by social technicians in the recent Balkan wars. But even in the Balkans, a principal technician was the Bosnian Serb psychiatrist Radovan Karadžić, who was fully trained in the art of unconscious triggers. Every government and dictator knows that a frightened population is more likely to be a compliant one.

As for the important de-activation of the Death Archetype - or to extend the viral analogy, the generation of the necessary mental anti-bodies - once re-evoked, the brain will often go into panic or catastrophe mode. On national levels this can induce reactions like declaring war, initiating fierce self-isolation or protectionism, issuing draconian new laws, and enforcing ‘lockdowns.’

The hard lockdown is one such reaction, initially emotionally similar to going to war and with comparable economic consequences. It attacks the virus’s behaviour directly and tries to ‘beat it’ like an enemy. From the psychological perspective, this is the simplest response, involving the use of police forces and sometimes the military. Although the UK, France, Italy and Spain were probably wise to lockdown initially, too much simplicity runs the risk of crippling the host organism unless quickly nuanced - to stop the ‘cure becoming worse than the disease’ (as happens in most wars).

In the case of large-scale military conflicts, after the huge death totals and hammered economies, a new feeling gradually washes through society of ‘never again.’ This is the self finally coming to some terms with its own Death Archetype in the brutal learning process of war, by creating its own mental anti-viral ‘T’ cells. These neural responses will physically print into memory cells, lasting until the next generation, at which point the infection cycle, if not guarded against, can start again (like WWII).

Parallels can be drawn with the process of personal bereavement. It too eventually produces its own anti-viral style reaction - usually some kind of cognitive response, and frequently, though not always, effective. Successes can be seen in extraordinary transformations in character, sudden abilities to forgive enemies (as in some families in Northern Ireland), and a newly mature, less reactive style of behaviour.

But for this to happen, a society needs to understand the psychological processes and signals at work. This is never easy, because individuals invest much energy in keeping their weaknesses hidden - from themselves as much as from others. Without guidance, a strongly re-stimulated Death Archetype can produce over-reactions like anxiety, aggression, and the need to blame (i.e. fear projected onto others), alongside a variety of mental conditions. This is already being seen in the pandemic with a rise in suicides and domestic violence in lockdowns.

To help find solutions it's worth briefly posing the larger sociological question: why has global society reacted so strongly to what is in effect, a relatively mild virus, at least when compared to those like the Spanish Flu of 1918?

Purely from the psychological viewpoint, it's been hard not to notice the quiet building up of anxiety in western societies over the last decade. Many months before the arrival of the virus it became normal to say to departing friends, ‘have a safe journey,’ as if fear was becoming fashionable.

Books had begun to appear with titles like ‘Age of Anger’ (anger being one expression of fear); mental health issues started to receive soaring media coverage; and stark new statistics were being bandied about - for example, that ‘18.1% of Americans’ suffer from anxiety to the extent of self-medication. And all this in the wealthiest, best protected global environment that human beings have ever produced for themselves.

But new wealth has also produced the best protection against human experience. Gritty reality - the most effective learning environment for the self - has been replaced by its weaker surrogates in movies, Youtube and other media. Mortality has been pushed back, smoothed away, and re-closeted behind the screen. But underneath it the Death Archetype always lurks. At some point every living being must confront it eye to eye. Coronavirus has pulled this confrontation rudely forward.

Now, every face-mask or child’s cough can produce images of one's own fatality. Furthermore, with new wealth has come new free time, robots and the internet. Populations have greater space to think, investigate, worry, raise their expectations, and feel corresponding frustration when they're not met. Assuming Covid-19's mutations don't evolve into something worse than what we have already (like Spanish Flu's second wave in 1918), then we may have got of lightly with this latest manifestation of the Archetype.

But it does send out a clear warning about the need to face up to difficult emotions and weaknesses. Like the virus itself, an anti-virus lingers in the organism, waiting to be welcomed back into the blood stream once the courage has been gathered to look the time-honoured emotion of fear coolly in the eye.

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