Original Art by Eric Avalon Huhta used with artist’s permission

COVID-19 and Fear

Some of us are just genetic worrywarts

A few weeks back, my son came to me awash in worry over the new virus in China. He’d even been to the doctor, an unusual thing for him. Now, the city is basically locked down, though voluntarily, I am amazed at his prescience. In early February, he was so worried he just had to see his doctor.

He’d become obsessed with YouTube videos showing people in China keeling over in the street. and podcasts telling him the world was on the brink of disaster. The doctor prescribed he turn off the 24-hour news stations and listen to music while he worked.

But now that another dangerous virus has appeared in Toronto, everyone is concerned about themselves and their loved ones. You can’t downplay how troubling the COVID-19 is to a city that was the epicenter of the SARS outbreak in Canada 17 years ago. In total, so far there have been 339 COVID-19 cases reported in Toronto and four deaths.

Though he was a child during SARS-1, my son, like almost any Torontonian age 25 and older, carries the memories of empty streets and people in masks and they fuelled his fear. But that’s not the total picture. Studies have shown some people, like my relatives, are more prone to worry. A review of research in 2017 published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience showed, for many, worry is in our genes.

A long line of worrywarts

My son and I do come from a long line of worrywarts. My mother often drowned in worry over her children being abducted as she see-sawed through a life of manic depression. Her father once became so agitated after a flash storm swallowed up his friends, killing in them when their fishing boat capsized, his family locked him in the barn until he settled down.

Listening to my son, I remember one of my own frenzied fits of worry at age nine. It happened when, within a month, I could not hear the highest sounds and failed my grade school’s annual hearing test, noticed my teacher’s blackboard notes were fuzzier each day, and I got a cough that made my voice a whisper. We were studying Helen Keller in class, and I was sure her fate would be mine.

Worriers must look out to the wondrous world and not become locked inside their fears.

So when my wide-eyed, grown son came to me with his fears of a new potential pandemic, I gave him the same advice my mom gave me, and her fretful father gave her. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. It’s a waste of precious time. Worriers must look outward to the wondrous world and not become locked inside their fears.

Still, even after I went online and read him parts of a National Academies Press report about how much the city had learned from SARS to protect him he did not calm down.

Then he said something that made me see his obsessive anxiety in a new light.

“It scares me so much because I feel compelled to do something about it,” he said. “I can’t stop this thinking how important it is for people to take it seriously and how we are not prepared.”

That’s when I saw his fear as an expression of his compassion and altruism. They are two of the traits that make me love him the most.

Social responsibility

Social scientists and geneticists have been trying to find the biological origins to explain the link between worry and altruism for decades. Some reports have suggested that worriers have an inbred heightened sense of social responsibility. Back in caveman days, worriers were useful because they sounded the alarm about threats, increasing everyone’s chance of survival, according to experts like James Clear.

More proof that my son’s worry was hardwired can be found in a study from Personality and Individual Differences, published in December 1994.

Loops of disaster

The study found two reasons for worry. Worry helps people think they can stop bad things from happening. And it distracts us from imagining even worse scenarios.

Worry helps people think worry can stop bad things from happening and it distracts us from imagining even worse scenarios.

That was how I’d come to see my lifetime of relentless worry. Years of therapy taught me to ignore most of my loops of disaster that play out daily in my head.

But the study also found a second reason for worry. It found worry gives people more control over life’s uncertainties and helps them better plan to solve problems. That sounds like my son’s explanation of why he had such an obsession with a potential worldwide medical threat.

One theory in a Psychology Today article from March 2018 says excess worry started when we became an agricultural society, about 10,000 years ago. At that point in our evolution, bad weather was one of the biggest threats we faced. People began to value others more because they needed each other to work farms to survive. Humanity was evolving past Darwin’s cutthroat “survival of the fittest” and becoming more caring and cooperative.

Inclusive fitness

In 1964, British evolutionary biologist W. D. Hamilton coined the term “inclusive fitness” to explain when humans worry about each other and act to increase everyone’s survival.

Fear about the outbreak did not mean he was crazy but that he cared

After a bit of reading, later in the day, I called my son to see how he was doing. I told him research shows his fears about the outbreak don’t mean he’s crazy just that he cares about his fellow men and women. Finally, this eased his mind. Perhaps if we can see our worries over this epidemic as a sign of compassion instead of hysteria, our worried world will calm down in the face of this new health threat, too.

I’ve been a poet since I was five. Then after university, I worked at the Toronto Star as a journalist, editor, and public editor. Happier now, I write poetry.

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