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Invisible enemy

Fear can be a very useful thing. However, when it is directed against an unknown and intangible enemy such as the coronavirus, the customary mechanisms of fear then fail. According to psychology professor, Julian Keil, this can become a problem.

Woman disinfecting a computer screen
© iStock/valentinrussanov

More frequently disinfecting the keyboard or the telephone could be a long term consequence of corona.

"When a snarling dog is racing towards us or someone approaches us in an aggressive way, fear works perfectly," he explained. "Our body pumps out adrenaline and puts us in a state of fight or flight," added the professor of biological psychology.

Ideally, fear therefore protects our health or even saves our life in situations of this kind. However, this reaction does not work when dealing with a virus. As Keil explained, this has a lot to do with the way in which we as humans deal with the unknown. We generally seek to make our day-to-day life easier, predominantly by using automated action strategies. When shopping in the supermarket, people first get a trolley, fill it with products from the shelves and deli counters, pay for everything in the checkout area and then maybe exchange a few friendly yet trivial words with the cashier. All of these things happen largely unconsciously. Yet according to Keil, things then suddenly change when we face threats such as the coronavirus. "There might be a doorman at the entrance and lots of signs, reminding us to maintain a safe distance. People can then feel threatened by others getting too close and unsure as to whether they should engage in the familiar small talk at the checkout or rather just stay silent." All of this initially adds to our stress, as we need to consciously consider all of our actions in situations like this, which goes against our natural habits. What’s more: just like an aggressive dog, the coronavirus represents a threat, but one that is invisible and cannot be overcome by either fight or flight. "Our fear system is not set up to deal with this kind of danger," commented Professor Keil, describing the dilemma. The impending consequences are both obvious and alarming, as a threat that is constantly present can lead to permanent overstimulation. "This is really not good for us physically," added Keil, referring to potential effects such as neurodermatitis or digestive problems.

When forced into a corner, however, people will typically come up with something as a way of getting through the current situation. Depending on their personality, some may simply ignore the threat and thereby not take any "bad news" on board. Others may attempt to turn their fears into action and go crazy with panic buying. "Although this does little to help the situation at hand, it can provide the feeling that you are actually doing something," as Keil explained.

Our fear system is not set up to deal with this kind of danger.

Julian Keil

Doing sensible things and thereby realising that they are not totally helpless in the face of the threat is generally the most effective strategy and, based on the impression of the expert, what many people actually do. Washing your hands regularly, constantly disinfecting everyday items, wearing a mask, carefully choosing who to converse with: Keil considers these to be perfectly rational and also emotionally stabilising methods for dealing with a virus.

He believes that the existential threat resulting from this is what makes an pandemic such as the coronavirus crisis so special and that the initially rather sketchy scientific understanding of this virus has served to compound this. People generally avoid unknown situations and those that they cannot control themselves anyway, despite the fact that the associated risks can almost always be rationally classified. Anyone sitting in an aircraft puts their life in the hands of the pilot, but is fully aware that the risks involved are minimal and that the chances they will survive are high. Even taking a trip to an exotic location can leave some people with a rather queasy feeling. According to Keil, however, this is generally perceived as an exciting adventure – especially since it is possible to return home safely at any time if the worst were to happen.

Julian Keil
© Katja Scherle

Julian Keil regards the fear of the unknown as a very special phenomenon.

So can we take something positive away from the coronavirus crisis, despite all of the associated risks? "I hope so," commented Professor Keil, encouraging us to adopt a permanently different view of what is important in life: "This starts with hygiene and continues with appreciation of social and service occupations," added the scientist. With a bit of luck, he hopes that the crisis will also lead to a greater and long-term sense of solidarity in our society.

Author: Martin Geist