Dr. Barbara Schmidt, wiss. Mitarbeiterin am Institut für Psychologie

Control your fear by changing your evaluations

An interview with clinical psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt on fear and corona
Psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt
Image: Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU
  • Corona

Published: 27 March 2020, 11:30 | By: Sebastian Hollstein

The corona crisis is unsettling people around the world. Their reactions are quite different, but fear often plays a role. What does fear do to people? In fact, what is fear? In this interview, anxiety and hypnosis researcher Dr Barbara Schmidt from the Institute of Psychology at the University of Jena explains to us the fundamentals of fear, its effects, and ways in which we might be able to handle this feeling a bit better.

Corona or COVID-19 has generated a great deal of uncertainty in Germany and the whole world. Why does a crisis like the present one frighten many people so much?

Schmidt: The current social situation under COVID-19 is new and unknown to all of us. It is difficult for us to assess the situation correctly, as it changes every day. We cannot draw on known patterns; and that causes this feeling of uncertainty and fear. It is actually well justified to be frightened right now; but despite it, we should remain capable to act. Understanding the concept of fear is helpful in this regard.

What is fear?

Fear is a feeling that we have when we evaluate a situation as threatening. When we feel fear, we try to do something to reduce that perceived threat. I would like to focus in particular on the very interesting aspect of evaluation. The things around us have no value per se. We give them value through our evaluation. This means great freedom. We can evaluate a situation differently to handle it better. There are very interesting examples for that mechanism. Imagine you step on a stage and your heart starts beating faster, because you are about to give a speech. You can now evaluate your heartbeat like this: ‘Ah, I am nervous and I am afraid to talk in front of the crowd’. Alternatively, you can think: ‘Ah, my body is providing everything necessary for me to give my best performance’. Fear is interestingly very difficult to measure. You cannot just use a kind of thermometer to measure it. However, exact measurements are very important in psychological research. That is why we developed specific survey methods in order to measure fear. This shows once again how complex this feeling is.

When and how does fear become dangerous?

I would like to refer to the two key actors in our brain. The first one is the amygdala, an evolutionary very old part of the brain that quickly reacts to threats. The amygdala triggers automatic behaviour patterns like fight or flight. In doing so, it fulfils a very important function — without it, humankind would not have survived. The second actor is the prefrontal cortex, the area behind our forehead. It is young from an evolutionary point of view, and very large in humans. The function of the prefrontal cortex cannot be defined so easily; it is a coordinator of sorts. It determines who takes the lead at what time, like the conductor of an orchestra. Now, the amygdala — the centre of fear — and the prefrontal cortex — the director — are in very close contact. The amygdala assesses something as threatening. The prefrontal cortex comes into play and allows the amygdala to ring its alarm very loudly, because it is justified; or it tells the amygdala to stand down. This truly fascinating process shows how flexible the processes in our brain are. If the prefrontal cortex cannot do its job properly, there is nobody to stop the amygdala. Then, the way we think and act will be very much shaped by fear, which is not always appropriate. In one study, for example, I found out that anxious participants show an increased activity in the frontal cortex before taking a risky decision. The more active the frontal cortex, the more cautious the participants behaved (Schmidt et al., 2018 https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13210).

Why do people react so differently? Some turn into egoists (keyword ‘panic buying’), whereas others show commitment and solidarity.

Here, the individual personality comes into play. Each of us has specific behavioural patterns that can differ very much. In a relaxed situation, we are able to control ourselves relatively well in order to suppress socially unacceptable behaviour. Once again, the prefrontal cortex is in charge here. If a situation is very stressful, however, and that is the case right now, then we are not able to control our behaviour so well. The capacities to control our behaviour are now needed to process all the new pieces of information that are raining down on us. That can lead to impulsive behaviours. Here, I would like to refer to the aspect of evaluation again. Having an objective look at the facts in a quiet moment and realizing that our personal freedom is restricted right now, but that our food supply is secure — that can help in such a situation. I also recommend to rely on trustworthy sources when collecting the information you need to evaluate the current situation; and that you set limits on how much time you spend on doing that.

Is there something like mass fear? Fear that is “transmitted” from one to another?

That sounds as if fear was some sort of virus. I do not think that is the case. Then again, the behaviour of others is a source of information that we use to evaluate a present situation.

What causes such hysterics?

We observe people who behave in a certain way and draw conclusions from these observations. If many people buy toilet paper now, then we deduce that this is appropriate behaviour. One element here is our suspicion that those who buy toilet paper have information that we do not have ourselves. However, none of this is well considered; we are talking about automatized behaviour here.

How can we break that ‘chain of fear’ and restore a ‘normal’ state?

We can break the chain of fear by relying on our slow and conscious second mode of processing. I already mentioned that we often behave impulsively in situations that we perceive as threatening. This is the fast and subconscious first mode of processing, which is strongly characterized by automatized behaviour. The second mode of processing is slower and requires a certain calmness. I would recommend you take your time to calm down. Then lay all the facts on the table and deduce what to do. I admit that this is not easy. I work with hypnosis a lot, which is why I have a special tip for you: I recorded a hypnosis session that you can use to relax and in which I suggest the feeling of safety and security. I now invite you to take half an hour, sit down in a comfortable chair, and listen to the audio recording. I have successfully used this text in two scientific studies. [mp3 20MB]

Besides the fear of an infection with potentially the worst consequences, additional fears arise: fear for the health of relatives and friends, fear for our social basis in case of an economic downturn, or the fear of losing one’s workplace. What can the individual, what can politics, family, or friends do against it?

I find it very helpful to remember how adaptive we are. Of course, we would prefer a situation with little changes, one that does not require us to adapt — but we do not always have a choice. Fact is that we can adapt, and we are very well at it. Personally, I find it helpful that I enjoy being a scientist so much that I see a higher goal in it. There is this belief in therapy that aspiring something meaningful helps us in the sense of ‘The most important thing is to know what I am doing this for’. Use this time to think about what really matters to you, and invest your strengths in that. It will help you grow and feel better. Then, the focus is not so much on you as a person with feelings of fear or helplessness, but on the goal that you want to achieve. You can still actively influence many things. You can wash your hands thoroughly. You can keep your distance. You can keep in touch with other people via the telephone and give them hope and confidence. Just think about what your strengths are, and use them for others.

I would like to finish with a personal question: What kind of fear did you feel, and how were you able to minimize it?

Some days ago, I was afraid that the frost might kill the plants in my garden. As a result, I took them inside. That sounds very trivial, but I like that example, because it simply puts the focus on my message for you. Fear has to do with how we evaluate a situation. In my case, I had heard on the news that it would get very cold at night, and I concluded that it would be dangerous for my plants to stay outside. The next step is to ask ‘What can I do now?’. In my case, I took the plants inside. Now, I can see that they are fine. Of course, there is no way to know if they had really been killed by the frost outside. This is a very interesting aspect: We act in a certain way that has certain consequences. From these consequences, we deduce whether our behaviour was right. In my case, I would say that I acted correctly, because my plants are fine now. With this in mind, I hope that you  find the strength to act in a way that you can assess as ‘right’ after the crisis is over.


Barbara Schmidt, Dr
+49 3641 9-45149
Institutsgebäude (Haus 1), Room 132
Am Steiger 3
07743 Jena
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