We’ve grown accustomed to being afraid. Since the 1980s, according to the sociologist Barry Glassner, Americans have lived in a state of low-level panic. Some social scientists would even describe fear as addictive, he says. While the jury’s out on that, it’s certainly contagious: If you tell me about your fears, I get them too. Then I pass them on.
Let’s be clear: No one’s saying that you shouldn’t be afraid right now. Between a global pandemic, ongoing police brutality and institutional racism, and the looming 2020 election, there are plenty of things to worry about. But there’s a difference between reasoned concern and naked fear. The first might keep you safe; the latter could actually kill you. After 9/11, for instance, fear of plane hijackings prompted many people to take long road trips instead of flying. Planes weren’t hijacked — but many more people died in traffic accidents.
But fear doesn’t have to be your new normal, even in a time when some amount of it is warranted. This is not the first time that humankind has been collectively scared, nor is the unexpected joy that some quarantined people are finding in confinement unprecedented: As bombs rained down on London in the Second World War, bomb shelters became centers for community and merriment: In February 1941, according to one estimate, some 464 evening classes were being held in London bomb shelters — as well as sewing circles, darts nights, singing evenings, and amateur theater.
Nearly a century later, their lesson still applies: There are ways to manage fear, many of which involve approaching our own terrors, and those of the people around us, with humor and kindness.
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Many of us are currently experiencing a combination of fear and anxiety. Anxiety is the vaguer of the two: “There’s a sense of apprehension, there’s the possibility of threat, but that threat is not very clear,” says the psychiatrist Arash Javanbakht…