Fear: an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Take a closer look at the definition above: there’s an important clue in there to the nature of fear. (Hint: it has to do with the words “emotion” and “belief.”)
What is fear? We generally feel our fears are warranted – will we lose that important job? What’s that clanky noise the car is making? Is she going to leave me?
But when it comes to phobias, panic and anxiety, it is that word belief that really drives fear. Here’s how to take charge of your anxieties and see them in a perspective you may never have considered.
Everyone Experiences Fear
First, it’s important that you know everyone – and we do mean everyone, from the youngest child to professionally-trained firefighters, emergency personnel and Marines – experiences fear.
Your fears may or may not seem legitimate to you (for instance, a fear of spiders may at face value appear illogical, and a fear of falling off a tall building is easy to control – just don’t stand on the tops of buildings!).
But the biology behind fear means that while you’re experiencing it, both your body and your mind believe the fear is real, and imminent and tangible…and they will respond accordingly.
Fear and the Body
As soon as you experience fear, your body will react accordingly. It’s not doing these things to upset you or to make your life worse. In fact, it’s important to remember that when you experience these changes, your body is trying to help you, not hurt you. It’s trying to prepare you for the worst, no matter what that is. (More on that below.)
Some of this preparation for real or perceived danger is to put the body on hyper-alert. A few changes you may experience during either fear or deep panic are:
- A part of the brain called the amygdala sends alert signals to the body.
- Your heart begins to pump faster, getting blood and oxygen through the entire body in case you need to run, or physically protect yourself. In such situations, you need all the oxygen and muscle readiness you can get.
- Your breathing becomes faster to keep large amounts of oxygen coming in.
- Your nervous system goes on hyper-alert. Images may appear clearer and almost “unreal” to you; your hearing becomes acute; the sensation of touch may become uncomfortably sharp.
- The rapid rush of oxygen throughout your body may cause tingling, especially in your hands, arms, face and sometimes your legs.
- You may become nauseated. In the presence of perceived danger, the digestive system almost instantaneously shuts down in order to direct its energy to your arms, legs, heart and central nervous system.
- If the fear/panic continues, you may begin to experience weakness and shaking, particularly in your hands and legs. Your muscles are being bombarded by physical signals that are making it ready to do something: run away, or fight. In modern society, and particularly with panic attacks, there’s no actual need to run or fight. So you’re not working off those electric impulses; instead, you’re simply wearing out a muscle and making it feel tired and shaky.
Please remember that generally, these physical reactions will not hurt you. To date there has been no authenticated case of a person actually dying from a panic attack. Even fainting during a panic attack is exceedingly rare.
Fear and the Mind
Your mind, too, must react quickly to fear. After all, it doesn’t know whether the amygdala has sent its “urgency” signal because a tiger is rushing toward you.
For this reason your mind may actually work on increasing your feeling of fear. This is to make you so uncomfortable that you will do something. Anything! When you’re in danger from any source, your mind wants you to move.
That’s why you feel an increasing urgency and a “run away…get out of here right now!” sensation when in the throes of fear, including severe social anxiety or a panic attack.
The Anticipation Factor: Fear of Fear is the Worst Part
That brings up an interesting point, and one science has been aware of for a while now. But non-scientists have made the same claim. Remember Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous inauguration speech quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself?”
Winston Churchill later repeated the assertion. “Fear of fear” is something we’ve been aware of for a long time.
What does that really mean? It means that the anticipation of fear is what can paralyze, generally much more so than when we’re in the presence of an actual, tangible danger. Trust us, when that tiger does go dashing for you, you will run.
But when fear isn’t caused by a true physical threat, there’s nowhere for the fear to go (i.e., into pumping legs or ready fists), so the anticipation just keeps building…and building…and building.
It’s much more unbearable to experience a fear that’s nameless and faceless, and to be stuck in that loop of fear-body and emotional symptoms-fear, than to see a threat and hightail it out of there.
Your Body is Trying to Help You
Now that you know how fear works, what can you do about it?
We believe that the first and most crucial step is to realize that your body is not the enemy. It doesn’t want to terrorize you for no reason at all. It doesn’t want to embarrass you by causing you to shake and sweat and perhaps feel dizzy in the middle of an important event. It doesn’t want you to lose your job because you “just can’t hold it together.”
Rather, your body is trying to work with you. It wants to protect you. As long as you hold your tense stance and continue to breathe quickly and in a panicked way, and as long as your mind keeps receiving the signal “run, run, run,” your body will continue to work hard on your central nervous system to encourage you to leave the area, and the danger it senses but doesn’t understand.
Immediately upon feeling the beginnings of anxiety or a panic attack, tell yourself very firmly (you don’t have to do this aloud): It’s okay. I will take care of you. Someone is here to help.
You need to let your body and your deepest emotions know that you appreciate their efforts, and that the situation is under control – no real danger is happening.
Of course, that’s only the first step. Next, you’ll want to …
Send Physical Signals That All is Well
Here’s where you can do something concrete to help yourself calm down both physically and mentally. What you want to do is send the brain physical signals that there is no danger present.
- Slow your breathing. Slowed, controlled breathing tells the brain that you’re calm (even if you don’t feel calm at all!). This will signal the brain to reduce its efforts to pump more blood throughout your body.
- Systematically relax and unclench areas of your body. Let go of the tight fists you’ve been making. Lower your shoulders. Again, this signals the brain that you are no longer literally “bunched up for danger.”
- Sit down, if possible. Standing signals readiness, and lying down is a vulnerable and frightening position to the body and brain. But sitting connotes, in our culture, an awake but relaxed pose.
- Take your time. Don’t berate yourself inwardly for still feeling afraid. The loop of physical relaxation-brain’s relaxation response-body’s letting go of fear symptoms may take a few minutes. It may take longer. Use as much time as you need. Take care of yourself as if you were a parent taking care of a child. This association alone will generally make you feel more relaxed.
Making Friends With Your Body
Once again: your body is not the enemy. In fact, it’s your very best friend. All it wants is for you to survive, be happy and be well.
So thank your body (yes, really!) after a panic attack. Say to yourself, “Thank you, body, for being on the lookout for any danger. There wasn’t any, but I am glad you’re healthy enough that you respond in normal ways when you think there is. I promise I will always take care of you.”
This may seem silly at first, but too often we see our panic attacks – and by association, our bodies themselves – as trying to undo us. This simply isn’t the case, and feeling this way tends to only make things worse, as “fighting against” your body is, after all, still fighting.
The urge to “fight” a panic attack can put your body and mind even more on the alert.
When it Isn’t a Panic Attack
What about generalized fear and worry? You know what I’m talking about – that endless refrain of all the things you have to worry about that plays all night and doesn’t let you sleep.
Again, be the voice of reason and, most importantly, of capability to the inner child that’s crying out for help. Tell yourself, “Whatever happens tomorrow, or next day or next year, don’t worry. I am here and I am smart and capable. I will take care of us (re: you, your body and your psyche).”
This reinforces to your innermost self that no matter what, someone is in charge – you! And just like a child holding her parent’s hand, your body and emotions will, over time, respond by accepting that fear exists, but that help will be there for them.
Be Gentle With Yourself
After a panic attack, or after you’ve gotten through that dreaded public speech or your airplane has landed safely on the ground at the airport, baby yourself a little. Your fear is a signal that you’re on the over-alert. This doesn’t mean you’re weak; in fact, it means the opposite. It means your body is willing to do anything it takes to keep you safe.
To relax that over-alertness, take gentle care of yourself. Have a hot bath. Read a relaxing book. Go for a walk at your local arboretum and enjoy the beautiful flowers and trees there. Have a good, warm, comforting meal.
Never berate yourself for your fears. As we’ve said, fear happens to everyone. It is a normal response to a perceived threat. It’s there to protect us. Get to know it – and yourself – a little bit better. You’ll be glad you did…and over time, you’ll be more relaxed than you ever thought you could be.