Feb 27, 2020

Coronavirus Is Out Of Our Control. Our Fear Of It Is Not.

(Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

(Photo by Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The novel coronavirus is here. How we think and feel about it can reveal how we live with fear. For most of us, fear holds us so powerfully because we’re deeply afraid to feel it.

A world-wide pandemic of a killer virus is objectively scary. As the dire warnings multiply, so does our fear. It manifests in the precipitous drops in stock markets around the world, in shelves emptied of surgical masks and antiseptic, and in panicked quarantines that halt world travel and lock down cities.

For a while, the virus felt remote. As the virus moved from one person to the next in Wuhan, China, we worried for them, but not for us. We empathized with the passengers stuck for days on cruise ships, but didn’t share their terror and isolation.

Now there are clusters of coronavirus cases on every continent but Antartica. On Wednesday, the number of new infections outside China exceeded for the first time those inside the country. Globally, more than 81,000 people have been infected and 3,000 people have died. There are cases in Italy, in South Korea, in Brazil, in Iran, in the United States and more.

The time for personal fear is here.

Getty Images

Coronavirus Chinese Medical Specialists (Getty Images)

Facing the Inner Fears from an External Threat

How we face such fear determines how we cope and how we suffer.

Many people feel safer or less afraid when they take some control of a situation. In the case of coronavirus, you can anticipate the approach of the invader and take steps to protect yourself from that external threat. You can wash your hands, disinfect your workplaces and homes, travel less, and avoid large public gatherings.

These are legitimate and important precautions. Of course. They can lower your risk — to some extent — of becoming ill.

For a short while, you’ll feel better, too, but not because you’ve faced your fear. You’ve gone from feeling out of control to taking actions to exert control. That’s the sugar high way to handle fear: It feels really good in the moment, but the high fades and the uncomfortable, gnawing inner fears reemerge.

This is a fear that comes from within. In the weeks and months ahead we need to learn face it.

Facing the Fear Within

The hundreds of C-Suite executives I’ve advised over the past decade are not shy about admitting that their colleagues and their employees see them as flawed. Some are critiqued for being aggressive or arrogant or defensive. Some act harshly, speak disrespectfully or take decisions unilaterally. When you look beneath the traits or reactions of these extremely high-performing leaders, what you find is nearly always the same: fear – fear of failure, fear of disappointing people, fear their sick child won’t get better – just plain fear.

Instead of ignoring the fear or taking external measures to control it, I urge them to stop running and feel. They learn quickly that facing the fear and accepting it as a natural and legitimate emotion eases their suffering and helps them make better choices. It frees them from expending unnecessary energy to control the uncontrollable.

We can apply this philosophy to the inner fears awakened by the onslaught of the coronavirus. Absolutely take the actions you should. At the same time, notice when you’re rushing into action to avoid feeling fear. Experiencing the fear means letting it move your heart without moving your will.

Published on Forbes.com February 27, 2020