Much has been said about how fear has been used to drive the narrative and help impose restrictions on personal liberty we have faced during the pandemic. In this article I would like to suggest that anxiety, rather than fear itself, has become the much bigger concern, and one whose effects will haunt us for years to come.
If we take a step back for a moment, we can see that psychological language has been in the spotlight throughout the last two years. Some sections of the media and various bodies of experts have undoubtedly used their influence to generate fear in the general public. Although fear can paralyse our thoughts and actions, I believe that what we have actually been subject to has been a deliberate attempt to generate massive levels of societal anxiety. As a psychologist, I believe that anxiety, rather than fear, will turn out to be a major health problem facing individuals in the years ahead. Due to a number of complex factors operating at personal and community levels, the incidence of clinical and sub-clinical anxiety has never been higher in the U.K. population. The data to support this claim are well known, and yet, we have just been through a situation where psychologists on SAGE supported by others have deliberately stoked anxiety to increase compliance around various Covid measures.
It is quite usual in everyday speech to use terms like fear and anxiety interchangeably. Most of the time this is not a problem, and reflects a basic and commonly held view that these terms describe an uncomfortable emotion which is a reaction to a perceived or real threat. In fact, however, these words describe different psychological conditions with important distinctions. If we look at fear first, a key feature is that it is always related to a specific cause. In straightforward terms, we always know what it is we are afraid of, and our response involves either ‘fight or flight’. Now, if we reflect on our own personal experience, we know that anxiety is quite different to fear, not least because it is often much harder to state exactly what we are so anxious about.
Indeed, the best definitions of anxiety describe it as apprehension about a future event, and one thing we can say about the future is that it is by definition very uncertain. The way the pandemic narrative has changed so often over the course of the last two years, uncertainty about the efficacy of masks, the lethality of different strains of the virus, doubts about whether non-symptomatic transmission is possible, and changes in advice about who should be vaccinated, are just some of the sources of anxiety we have been subject to.