The Difference Between Fear & Excitement is... Perspective!

Updated: May 31, 2020

I once heard a man say There’s no shame in being afraid, being honest we’re all afraid. What you should do is figure out what you’re afraid of because when you put a face on it, you know what you’re fighting and you can beat it. Better yet, you can use it”. Considering the present circumstances, I believe these to be extremely poignant words.

Ever since the first reported cases and their rapid spread, each person will have analysed and behaved in their own way. Some may have downplayed the seriousness of it or even gone further by saying it would never come to their country. Some may have taken the opposite approach, preparing for the worst and started stock piling essential and non-essential supplies. Some may have reserved judgment or sought out information to understand it before doing so; being honest I took this approach. Now I’d like to state at this point though, I am not downplaying the situation, this is just me (for what it’s worth) providing the process I have gone through in order to deal with these unprecedented times and I do have a point I promise, so keep reading.

I am a sport performance psychologist, meaning I’m far from an expert in viruses and their inner workings. So, what I tried to do was contextualise it in the stats available. The process began with finding out the world population, which at the point of writing this is 7.8 billion. I then looked for the number of cases worldwide and the deaths associated with it COVID-19. Obviously when I started this the numbers were much lower, but currently there are 1,289,380 reported cases and sadly 70,590 deaths that have been associated. These are large numbers, especially when dealing with them in isolation. So, I then did some simple maths to work out the percentage, which at this stage works out as 0.0002% of the world population have been reported to be infected. Being honest that gave me a little reassurance whilst still acknowledging the seriousness of this virus, should it take hold even more. When it came to the UK and started spreading, I did the same thing (using the UK population) but only this time I added an extra layer and researched how many reported deaths there were normally in the UK. This was so when the daily totals were announced I was able to reflect with more perspective. In 2018 there were 541,589 registered deaths in England and Wales which equates to 1484 per day and 45,132 per month in a normal year. Being honest, those numbers absolutely staggered me, but they still also offered me some perspective on the current situation as it did with the world population. I guess at this point though the most logical questions are what’s my point and why did I go through this morbid process? The simple answer is fear.

I always introduce the topic of psychology to students and athletes by discussing the concept of what is the physiological difference between fear and excitement. 99% of the time they initially insist there are clear and distinctive differences, but just can’t articulate them. As the discussion continues however, it becomes clear that physiologically there are minimal differences, but psychologically the difference can be profoundly debilitating. Fear, can in turn negatively activate our stress response mechanism (Figure 1) where we will go through the process of either having a stress response or not. Now it’s worth pointing out we all go through this process at multiple stages throughout the day and it is a perfectly normal thing. The key part of this process though is the appraisal of the situation which typically consists of how much it means to us (e.g. is it local?), how big a deal is it (e.g. will it affect me?) and do we have the means to tackle the situation (e.g. do we have risk factors?). If we believe we don’t have the means or skills to deal with the situation this is when we become more fearful, stressed and even anxious. This psychological process then has a physiological effect in that when we become anxious it essentially ‘shrinks’ our prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making centre of the brain. If this occurs our ability to make decisions becomes significantly hindered and considering we make thousands of decisions a day, being in a constant fear / anxious state would not lead me to being effective during this period.

So, I come back to the question of why did I go through the morbid process of researching percentages of death counts? I already stated I did it because I was fearful, but I also did it as I wanted to appraise the situation with perspective. Perspective is something I truly believe is the key to getting through any situation, let alone COVID-19. For example, our fathers and grandfathers were asked to go to war in the most horrendous conditions, but we are being asked to stay at home in the comfort of own personal surroundings. Now I realise that is a very general statement, but I hope you get the point I’m trying to make. Perspective can offer some comfort in troublesome times. I engaged in this process to ensure I didn’t become debilitated with anxiety which in turn would have hindered my decision-making processes, which would have detrimental effects both in general life and my profession. But its also because I acknowledge what anxiety is and typically the origin of it; which is thoughts of future or the unknown. Think about all the things you are maybe anxious about right now. If you’re honest, typically it’s about something to do with the future or an unknown situation. How long will this last? What if I can’t cope with the lockdown, will people think less of me? I see all these people showcasing how productive they are being, what happens if I’m not?

This whole concept of being productive during this time is an interesting one and was something that J.K. Rowling recently discussed. She argued that it was ok for people not to be productive and condemned life coaches for essentially pressuring people to be so. I have to say I agree with her to a point that people do not need to produce something tangible by the end of this which is what so many are suggesting we should. However, I do believe it is a perfect opportunity for us all to reflect, re-evaluate and reset our lives in some way. H.G Wells put it best when he wrote, “Sometimes, you have to step outside of the person you've been and remember the person you were meant to be. The person you want to be. The person you are”.

“Sometimes, you have to step outside of the person you've been and remember the person you were meant to be. The person you want to be. The person you are”.

For me in my profession I have been forced to deliver lecturers through virtual means which is something I was never trained to do. But the situation has presented the opportunity to learn a new method of teaching and something that students have been very positive about. Some have even called for it to incorporated into the semester when they get back to attending as before. I would like to highlight though that students have been said to lack resilience or an ability to deal with conflict or failure; I have to say I am nothing short of proud as to how my students have reacted in these troubling times. The same should be said for the female footballers I coach each week who are no longer able to train in the traditional format but have adapted to virtual training sessions and extended learning about the game.

At this point I believe it fitting to hand over to E.E. Cummings who once wrote “To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

I have not written this to preach that I have found the perfect way for all people to get through these troubling times, I’m not arrogant enough to make such a claim. I have written this to provide an insight into a method that has been useful for me to keep functioning as both a human being, a professional and not be debilitated by fear and anxiety. Each one of you will have your own way (even if it’s not obvious right now) to deal with these situations but in the words of Tennyson its human nature “to strive, to seek and not to yield”. We have never been in a better position to beat something like this. If you look at the evidence of the past and place it in perspective, it tells me we will and be better for it as a human race.

“To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”

Lee Waters SFHEA, MSc, BSc

Senior Fellow Lecturer | Sport Performance Psychologist

Lee is a senior fellow lecturer with an MSc Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology and currently studying PhD Sport and Exercise Psychology (Underlying Mechanisms of Decision Making: Gaze Behaviour and Attention). Lee also predominantly works with the Ladies First Team for Peterborough FC, but also consults with scholarship programmes in regards to enhancing decision making. Lee's approach focuses on problem based coaching in order to enhance key psychological skills such as filtering relevant / irrelevant stimuli and developing player search patterns. To further enhance this Lee uses eye tracker technology to accurately analyse players focus.

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