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Fear and Mental Health: Managing Reactions and Responses

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Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Surprise, Disgust, and Fear: These are universal emotions that we all share, and they rank as the six most cited emotions in the literature. Images come to mind when we think about these emotions in our own lives — those recollections of the times, settings, or events that expressed these emotions to various degrees in our experiences. What I want to explore in this blog is FEAR. This powerful emotion can shake our world, can affect how we view life, and can cause us to question some of our own core values and beliefs.

A perceived threat is what triggers fear. It signals a basic survival mechanism in our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. As such, fear is essential for keeping us safe. Fear is a natural response that initiates specific behavior patterns, telling us how to cope in adverse or unexpected situations that threaten our wellbeing or survival. We can also experience fear when faced with less dangerous situations such as exams, public speaking, job interviews, or anything we might feel could be difficult or challenging.

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

Fear and anxiety are often used to describe similar phenomena, yet fear is usually attached to a specific and immediate context that elicits the fight or flight response. This response can occur faster than conscious thought and releases surges of adrenaline that “fuel” fight or flight reactions. Anxiety involves a lingering apprehension, a chronic sense of worry, tension, or dread. The things that evoke anxiety are typically less clear than the things that evoke fear. For example, an individual facing an aggressor on a dark street will activate fear and the fight or flight response, whereas another individual may feel anxious walking alone on a dark street with an apprehension of what might happen.

It is common to find that persistent anxiety may have its roots in a historical fear, perhaps unbeknownst to the individual experiencing this emotion. But what happens when fear, anxiety, or both are persistent? How is our mental health and physical wellbeing affected? We do know that people who live in constant fear — whether from physical dangers in their environment or from perceived threats — can become incapacitated.

What is the impact of sustained or chronic fear?

Physical health

Fear weakens our immune system and can cause cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal problems, and decreased fertility. It can also lead to accelerated aging and, in some cases, premature death.

Memory

Fear can impair formation of long-term memories and can adversely affect the hippocampus in our brain, the major hub for memory retention. Losing the pleasant or happy memories that help keep our world in balance may lead to the retention of fear-dread memories, leaving an individual anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world is scary.

Brain processing and reactivity

Fear can also interrupt the processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read nonverbal cues or other external information that is in front of us. It has the potential to impede our ability to act ethically and responsibly by interrupting the processing done by higher order thinking in the brain. It impacts our ability to think and make decisions, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions.

Mental health

Sustained, chronic fear is also the basis for mental health issues that surface. Major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders are examples of what an individual may begin to experience.

How to manage chronic fear and anxiety?

Face your fear

Avoidance is guaranteed to prolong fear and increase anxiety. Work with a therapist, confide in a friend, or simply own the feeling of fear while finding ways to begin facing it.

Develop a healthy sense of personal control

Increased stress or fear is a common result when we focus on the “hopelessness” of a situation. Develop a sense of personal control by focusing on things that we can control and change. Making changes, no matter how small, leaves us feeling empowered and strengthened.

Positivity

As noted above, fear has the power to imprint negative events in our brain reinforcing our belief that things are hopeless, scary, and insurmountable. Do not move into denial or avoidance, but rather remember to recognize the positive in our lives, our children, the fresh air and sun on our faces, and the accomplishments we’ve made. Positivity adds to our resilience during these difficult periods.

Find meaning outside of ourselves

Fear can shatter our sense of the world as we know it. Traumatic events can lead us to question the meaning of our lives. These combined with anxiety and feelings of hopelessness can lead us down a dark rabbit hole. Rather, try to garner or rediscover a sense of purpose. Community service and advocacy are two examples of such rediscovery efforts.

Get support

Fear can lead to isolation and disconnection from others. Studies continue to show that social support is vital in helping us manage our fears. Seek the help of people outside of yourself to provide a balanced perspective. Such perspectives can restart our brains, enabling us to see other ways of looking and understanding our lives.

Exercise

Be physically active in any way to make positive shifts in your emotions. Whether it is a relaxing walk or a vigorous workout, get your endorphins moving to find emotional balance.

Whether threats to our security are real or perceived, they have an impact on our mental and physical wellbeing. We live in a complex world with challenging situations. Whether we are experiencing reduced safety in our homes or neighborhoods, or from national or international crises, it is essential to promote our own self-care as we move forward with “next steps” in regaining our sense of personal control and security.

 

Image: Colin Wu on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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