Feelings of Fear in the Face of Perpetual Crisis

Jennifer Ladino

In January of 2019, Greta Thunberg told leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “I want you to panicI want you to feel the fear I feel every day.” With the COVID-19 crisis, feelings of fear are intensifying for many people. Having a collective panic attack is understandable if unhelpful in addressing global crises. But accurately naming our feelings can be a positive step in dealing with them. Is it anxiety, fear, dread, or some combination that we are feeling? And how do emotions about COVID-19 compare to fears about the climate crisis?

When it comes to fear, anxiety, dread, and panic, there are differences in intensity, duration, bodily symptoms, and collective action that deserve attention. Fear is a basic emotion experienced by many species; the “fight or flight” response it sparks makes fear evolutionarily useful. Individual fears can accumulate at collective scales and be managed, stoked, even weaponized for political purposes, such as closed borders and bigger walls. Unlike fear, anxiety is a future-oriented, prospective, anticipatory emotion. Anxiety is a longer lasting background feeling, and it primes the body for more frequent bouts of fear in our day-to-day lives.

In a sense, all emotions are anxious. “Emotion” comes from the Latin emovere, which implies both movement and agitation. But what feels like anxiety to one person might register as dread to another. Dread is anticipatory and durable, like anxiety, but more intense. Some of us are feeling what Glenn Albrecht calls global dread: “The anticipation of an apocalyptic future state of the world that produces a mixture of terror and sadness in the sufferer for those who will exist in such a state.” Of course, dread can spark avoidance. In fact, some researchers speculate that climate change skepticism is a product of repressed fears, an exaggerated ostrich effect. Meanwhile, eco-anxiety is increasingly common. The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” with symptoms ranging from low-grade worries to full-on panic attacks. For some of us, anxiety about climate change has long been a chronic feeling, and COVID-19 intensifies and compounds it.

The best thing about fear in any form is that it’s diagnostic. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed a “disease” in the form of precarious social systems, from inadequate health care services to a fragile global economy; perhaps this exposure will motivate us to treat the underlying causes rather than just the symptoms. First, we must assess why we are so quick to panic—and take action—when faced with a pandemic, while our global response to climate change is, comparatively, a shrug. There are many variables at play, including the “short game” of politics, the attention (or lack of) paid by mainstream news sources, and the newness and immediacy of the problems. Connecting the dots between the ecological dimensions of the novel coronavirus and climate change is essential. One easy way to start doing that is by talking about our feelings—identifying, for instance, the common ground between pandemic anxiety and eco-anxiety, or the ways anxiety contains grief, or the convergence of climate grief and grief about the pandemic, or whether our shame over the climate crisis might be a factor in refusing to face it.

An evaluation of the different degrees and kinds of fear circulating now can help explain our uneven responses. Racist fears of the “Chinese virus,” anxieties about income inequality, and dread about climate change—these are different feelings with distinct causes and political effects. We must find ways that this pandemic panic might fuel concern about the climate crisis. Certainly the speedy response to the pandemic suggests we’re capable of confronting the climate emergency with a similar urgency. While no one has immunity in this pandemic, its impacts are wildly disproportionate. The sooner we realize the same is true of climate change, the better. We must ensure that our fearful feelings don’t lead to increasing disparity and violence, but rather to hope, empathy, and collective concern. Our shared future depends, in part, on whether our fears about individual vulnerabilities, including mortality, can be scaled to apply more broadly—to neighbors, communities, and citizens of all nations.

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