Photo: iStockphoto

“Our fear system leaps into action with the vaccine” Photo: iStockphoto

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, the anxiety researcher Borwin Bandelow has been looking into how people are responding to it. In our interview, he talks about fear of the virus and the lack of willingness to take the vaccine.

Published in March 2021 Author: Jasmin Deiter (external)

Professor Bandelow, what happens in our bodies when we are frightened?

We have a fear system. This is triggered when we are confronted by an immediate danger, for example when a wild animal runs towards us. Our body puts itself on a different footing in milliseconds. The heart beats faster, breathing becomes quicker, blood is pumped to the arms and legs – our fight or flight response kicks in so that we are better able to do battle or run away. However, we don’t feel particularly comfortable in this state. This is what nature intends, so that we can shut down the cause of our fear.

But an outbreak of infection like the coronavirus doesn’t involve an immediate danger that you can see, hear or taste.

That’s correct. And this is where it gets interesting. Essentially, we have less fear of things that we can’t perceive directly even though they can cause great harm to us, for example nuclear radiation or cyber-criminality. The same situation occurs with a virus.  However, our fear system already leaps into action when we see images like those at the beginning of the pandemic when people in China were only going out onto the street wearing masks or when the coffins started piling up in Italy. However, this is still not the same as the situation when our lives are in mortal danger. But it is sufficient to trigger our fear system.

Professor Borwin Bandelow

“We have a rational brain and a fear brain.”

Professor Borwin Bandelow

Professor for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

What happens to people who see images like this and the fear system then kicks in for them?

We have an intelligent, rational brain in our heads and a rather simply configured fear brain, but this is what ensures that we survive – the two of them don’t necessarily work well together. The rational brain is exemplary at filtering and identifying facts. However, the fear brain is not at all good at doing this. It’s not in a position to balance probabilities carefully with each other. The coronavirus is something new, something unknown, and initially we are all frightened of it. An additional factor is that we are being bombarded by lots of facts and statistics every day. In a crisis, the fear system gains the upper hand – this is not good at statistics and becomes overloaded. If a simple solution is offered, for example somebody who maintains that the coronavirus doesn’t even exist, the fear brain is reassured in some people – and the rational brain can’t do anything about it.

At the beginning of the pandemic, most people were passionately yearning for a rapidly available vaccine. Now it’s arrived. How can we explain the fact that the readiness to take the vaccine has gone down worldwide since vaccines have become available?

At the beginning of the crisis, the coronavirus was the new and uncontrollable hazard – whenever something occurs that we’re unfamiliar with, we always initially evaluate it as being particularly hazardous. This was also the case with the coronavirus. However, we have now classified the virus in our list of known hazards. The vaccination is now new. This is where the fear system leaps into action once more. After all, we don’t want to inject an unknown substance into our arm.

Fear brain or rational brain – what prevails for you with regard to vaccinations?

The rational brain, for the following reason: At the beginning of March, more than 249 million people in the world have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. If there were problems, we would know about it. Naturally, vaccinations have caused damage to people in the past, for example in the case of the early polio vaccinations. However, the modern coronavirus vaccine only contains virus particles and you can’t actually catch the disease from them.

The Hamburg Centre for Health Economics has carried out surveys and established that around 80 percent of the respondents in the United Kingdom and Denmark want to have the vaccine. However, in France only 48 percent want the vaccine. In Germany, the figure is 62 percent …

A completely incorrect risk assessment is taking place – 1 out of 45 people infected with the coronavirus are dying. Across the world, 110 million people have become infected with the coronavirus, but more people have been vaccinated so far – 249 million. Nobody has yet succumbed as a direct result of the vaccination. People in Germany are frequently beset by misgivings about taking effective medications.

Vaccination willingness in Europe

The lockdown is still in place, lots of people are therefore continuing to remain socially isolated. How high is the risk of becoming lonely and coming out of this with psychological damage as a result?

The people suffering most from this situation are those who have built their lives on contact with other people or who were looking for a partner. But I have observed that human beings are able to get used to anything, even lack of contact with other people. Predictions that more people would die of suicide than as a result of the coronavirus have not come to pass. People find ways of continuing to keep up their contacts, either in bubbles or with video meetings.

Pessimistic forecasts assume that we will have the coronavirus with us until 2025. What’s your assessment?

My view is that we need to wait for another six months. Everything is likely to be better then. By that time, a very large number of people will have been vaccinated, most importantly those people in the high-risk groups. From the end of July, I would think that we will be able to visit restaurants again or go on holiday.

Personal profile

Professor Borwin Bandelow, born in 1951, is a Consultant in Neurology and Psychiatry, certified psychologist and psychotherapist, and he works as a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at German Göttingen University Hospital. The leading expert for anxiety disorders has more than 350 publications to his name.

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