Understanding and overcoming fear

Understanding and overcoming fear

Fear is an emotion that helps us face danger whether real or perceived. It causes changes in the brain and the physiological system of the human body,...

Madam, I recently suffered a chronic stomach ache during school hours. Since then I have a feeling in my mind that I might experience it again and gradually it has turned into a fear. Please guide me how to overcome it? Aswathy, Hyderabad

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. - H. P. Lovecraft

If you live in fear of the future because of what happened in your past, you’ll end up losing what you have at present.

Dear Aswathy, I understood that you are not only fearful of stomach ache but are also becoming anxious about its recurrence. You are more worried about what will happen if the pain occurs again. It is making you get more tensed and you are unable to control your automatic negative thoughts.

Fear is an emotion that helps us face danger whether real or perceived. It causes changes in the brain and the physiological system of the human body, which in turn changes human behavior. Fear is a vital response to physical and emotional danger—if we don’t feel it then we will not be able to protect ourselves from legitimate threats. But often we fear situations that are far from life-or-death, and thus anxious for no good reason.

Traumas or bad experiences can trigger the fear response within us which is hard to control. This tension in turn paralyses and destroys our ability to think and experience the moment rationally. In your case, an incident that happened in the past is making you experience fear and become anxious about it.

How fear works

Fear actually prepares us to react to danger. When we feel anxious, a bodily reaction is triggered, called the "fight or flight" response. Originally discovered by the great Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, this response is hard-wired into our brains (Autonomic Nervous System) and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from bodily harm.

Fight or flight response (symptoms and signs of fear)

Once we sense a potential danger, the autonomic nervous system gets activated and releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream which results in many physiological changes in our body and mind. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting (to face the danger). Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared—physically and psychologically—for fight or flight.

Effect on thinking

When our fight or flight system is activated, we tend to perceive everything in our environment as a potential threat to our survival. By its very nature, the fight or flight system bypasses our rational mind (where our more well thought out beliefs exist) and moves us into "attack" mode. This state of alert causes us to perceive almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival. As such, we tend to see everyone and everything as a possible enemy and may over react to the slightest stimuli or event. Our thinking gets distorted and we start seeing everything as a potential danger. We narrow our focus to those things that can harm us. Fear becomes the lens through which we see the world.

During Stone Age, this fight or flight mechanism developed and designed in human body to protect us from the wild animals like tigers that were there in the woods and fields around us threatening our physical survival.Today, however, the tigers we encounter are not a threat to our physical survival. Fear, anxiety and tension are resulting from our day to day activities like missing school bus, pressure of studies or health anxieties etc. and making us to feel threatened. Hence these modern day tigers trigger the activation of our fight or flight system as if our physical survival was threatened. On a daily basis, toxic stress hormones flow into our bodies for events, beliefs or thoughts thatare no real threat to our physical survival.

Cognitive distractions (Irrational thought patterns) that lead to fear and anxiety

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Tendency to judge things in extreme or “black-and-white” categories. It is irrational, because in reality, things are never completely one way or the other. Judging yourself in this way raises your anxiety level.
  • You are always afraid that if you don’t achieve perfection (one extreme) you will be a complete failure (the other extreme).
  • Overgeneralisation: When people over generalise, they assume that because they had one negative experience in the past, they will always have the same negative experience in the future—even though there is no evidence for that. This assumption raises their anxiety level whenever they encounter a situation that has been negative, even just once, in the past. Don’t you think you are thinking in this way!
  • “Should statements”: Using the word “should” is appropriate when there is something we need to do or a way we need to act in order to be responsible or courteous. But “shoulds” can get out of control and raise your anxiety level when they are unrealistic or unimportant.
  • Catastrophising: Taking an event you are concerned about and blowing it out of proportion to the point of becoming paranoid.
  • Personalisation: When a person attributes an external event to himself when there is actually no causal relationship. How to overcome fear and anxiety
  • Get a checkup: See a doctor to make sure there are no physical conditions that could be causing stomach pain again.
  • Worrying is worthless: It is common for people to worry about things that they feel anxious about. However, all the time and energy that is spent in worry is actually wasted. When you try to alleviate anxiety by worrying, all you do is make the anxiety grow stronger.
  • Get regular exercise, good nutrition, and sleep: These provide your body and brain with the right fuel and time to recharge.
  • Think about the worst: When you feel anxious, you can use the question, “What is the worst that could happen?” to help lower your anxiety
  • Relax, meditate: Fear and anxiety trigger the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and putting your body at risk for disease. A simple meditation shuts off the stress response and stimulates the relaxation response, allowing the body to not only free itself from fear and anxiety, but to also flip on its natural self-repair mechanisms and heal itself.
  • Affirm your positive thoughts: Try affirmations like “I am healthy Or “I can sustain pain.”
  • Stop you thoughts: Thought stopping is a technique that can help you let go of thoughts that cause you to feel anxious and change them to thoughts that help you feel peaceful. Five steps for thought stopping

1.Notice that you are having a thought that causes anxiety.

2.Choose a way to immediately and forcefully tell yourself to STOP thisthought. Some ideas include saying “Stop!” out loud or in your mind;picturing a bright red stop sign; keeping a lightrubber band around your wrist and snapping it gently; giving yourhead a quick shake as if you were physically shaking off the thought.

3.Consciously exchange the anxious thought for a peaceful thought.You can plan your peaceful thought ahead of time so it’s readyimmediately.

4.Say your peaceful thought out loud or in your mind.

5. Keep your mind focused on your peaceful thought until the anxiousone is completely gone.

  • Work with a mental health professional. Consult trained psychologist for professional help. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been successful in helping people overcome fear. By confronting their fears in a safe manner a person can suppress the fear-triggering memory or stimulus. This is known as ‘exposure therapy’. Don’t hesitate to approach.

By:N Radhika Acharya

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