Fear… we all feel it. A sudden startle in response to a perceived threat, a shortness of breath and chest constriction as your heart quickens pace. An unshakeable feeling of dread, then excessive worrying triggered by an unstoppable train of thoughts. Or occasionally, even a full-blown panic attack.
Fear is the biology of survival. It’s the primitive brain’s internal alarm system - alerting us to danger and triggering a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. While your amygdala sounds the alarm in your brain, a cascade of stress hormones like cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin are released into the body. This causes massive changes to your metabolic rate – as your heart-rate, breathing and blood sugar levels go up, priming you for action.
Some of you may fight back, or seek to avoid and flee from catastrophe. Others freeze and imagine the worst – playing out scenarios in their head, over and over again.
And it hurts. Fear is often painful and overwhelming. It initiates the build-up of acute tension in the neck, shoulders and back, as well as intolerable thoughts in your head. It impairs your ability to remain focused, confusing you with intense emotions and hyper-vigilance (feeling constantly on alert). Eventually, it stifles and disrupts your behaviour.
Most people hate feeling fear because of the way it takes control; compelling you to act in ways that seem alien and extreme, exposing you to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, as it takes charge.
However, some people are very adept at putting a lid on things: dampening down fear and disconnecting from it. You may only be conscious of fear when it enters your thoughts, flashing up worst-case scenarios, excessive worrying, or anticipating events before they happen. You may find yourself in the middle of a screenplay inside your head… only this is the Director’s cut.
You may dissociate from fear, but it always hits you later, when you least expect it.
So what is fear? And why do we need it?
Fear is your survival brain doing its job – protecting you from potential danger. If you didn’t feel fear, you couldn’t protect yourself, but sometimes for reasons unknown it can lead to more generalised anxiety problems and a disproportionate reaction to normal situations – such as socialising, meeting new people, dealing with customers, meeting deadlines or discussing problems with your boss.
Anxiety can also lead to conflict in close relationships, characterised by feelings of defensiveness and distrust as you notice a growing sense of paranoia and obsessive thinking over the smallest details. You may fear abandonment or rejection by your partner. You may seek to sabotage relationships with erratic behaviour or deception.
Fear of the unknown, fear of death or obsessive thoughts about health problems are common reactions to anxiety. There are also common phobias such as a fear of flying, a fear of commitment in relationships, and a fear of failure which lead to intense emotions that never get resolved.
How does fear work?
Fear is a primitive, unconscious response which is unavoidable. You cannot simply switch it off, rationalise it away, or think it through logically and get on with your life unimpaired.
Fear is a biochemical reaction. It starts with the amygdala detecting certain sensory stimuli (such as a loud bang, or an angry facial expression), and this spreads stress hormones into the body. These hormones make infinitesimal adjustments in your body and organs, priming you for the best defence. This may be a fight, flight or freeze reaction. The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobes of the brain, dedicated to detecting external threats picked up by the five senses or internal emotional stimuli (such as a dream or fantasy).
For example, the amygdala activates whenever you see a human face with a particular emotional expression such as anger or fear. Or a threat stimulus, such as seeing a man with a knife, triggering a fear response in the amygdala, which activates your motor functions in preparation for fight and flight. It also triggers the release of stress hormones and activates the sympathetic nervous system.
This leads to an intense state of emotional arousal in the body, with organ changes and metabolic rates that prepare us for danger with the release of adrenalin and cortisol.
The brain becomes hyper-aroused, your pupils dilate and breathing accelerates. Your heart-rate and blood pressure rises. Blood flows quicker through your vessels and the stream of oxygen and glucose to the muscles increase.
You may start to sweat from your forehead and palms. You may also experience a great deal of tension building up in the muscles of your back, neck and shoulders. Some people get headaches and stomach churning, or they start to tremble in the hands and knees.
Organs not vital to survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down and produce acid reflux to evacuate the bladder and bowels, which is why you may want the toilet more often when you’re anxious.
Another part of the brain called the hippocampus (which processes sensory and narrative memory), along with the prefrontal cortex, tries to help the brain interpret the perceived threat.
These regions of your brain are involved in higher-level processing, by trying to assess the meaning of a threat, helping you know whether a perceived threat is real. This is often why you may experience anxious thoughts and worrying long before the anticipated event actually happens (if at all). Later on, you get caught up in a cycle of panicky thoughts and screen-playing events like conflict in your head.
All-in-all, it can be a terrifying experience.
How do I get rid of it?
You can’t. However, you can learn to regulate your feelings and how you respond to anxiety in counselling. A good counsellor cannot provide you with a cure, but they can help you respond to your anxieties with a more balanced, mindful approach.
First of all, you need to understand your fear and its causes. Everyone is different. Some people become fearful after a traumatic event. Others learn to be fearful of things from childhood. Anxiety can be initiated by excessively anxious parents who were overly-protective with their children and found it hard to cope themselves, or even because they came from a traumatic background.
It can be triggered by parents who couldn’t cope with how their children expressed emotions or teach them how to self-regulate when they were anxious, or people who have had excessive exposure to unpredictable and chaotic changes in their lives; people who learned how to survive without proper boundaries, for an extended period of time.
Second, you gradually need to learn how to slow anxiety down and step back from your fear, to observe your anxiety as it happens, to notice the triggers, how they build-up and how you respond to the signals closer to the moment they’re triggered. This literally gives you breathing space to make sense of what is going on, to regulate your emotions and reduce the anxious symptoms.
Third, you will learn to develop your own internal ‘safety mechanisms’ through grounding techniques, mindfulness of breathing and maintaining focussed attention on your emotional responses. This also means building a deeper awareness of your bodily sensations and physiological states, because the survival brain always triggers the body first; long before you become aware of anxious thoughts in your brain (which is why anxiety seems to come out of nowhere).
Finally, you will learn sustainable ways of working with your anxiety and accepting its presence. Self-acceptance is vital. Anxiety can work for us, or against us. While it may always be there, you can learn to manage anxiety in ways that are more adaptive and flexible. You can use it as an incentive to solve problems, make decisions and meet deadlines, or it can overwhelm you with panic and a disproportionate need to avoid things.
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