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Let’s Talk About Fear

October 11, 2021

Expert guest blog: Rebecca Cicha, Ph.D., Rehabilitation Psychologist

Fear is one of countless human emotions that drives our behavior. Arguably, it’s the emotion that drives most of human (and animal) behavior.

Fear, at its most fundamental level, is an emotion that reflects the anticipation of threat or danger. Fear, if nothing else, is our hard-wired self-protection system. When we feel afraid, a cascade of neurotransmitter and hormonal activity is activated through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in our brain, triggering a response of the sympathetic nervous system (not sympathetic as in “sympathy,” but rather the subsection of our autonomic nervous system that regulates our levels of activation). This response, often referred to as the “Fight or Flight Response,” activates our body in various ways to prepare for this anticipated threat, including increased heart rate and rate of breathing, muscle tension, sweating, feeling flushed, pupils dilating, amongst other bodily symptoms. These body responses allow us to survive without much conscious thought in a crisis situation. It makes sense – if we need to fight our way out of danger, flee from danger, or freeze in a dangerous situation, it requires our body to quickly mobilize, which requires having ample oxygen and blood supply and our muscles ready for action.

This “fight or flight” reaction can mean the difference between life and death in certain circumstances (e.g., imminent danger of bodily harm where we need to cultivate much strength or speed in a short amount of time). However, it can be quite dysfunctional if experienced chronically or in response to minimally-dangerous stressors. Imagine having to speak in front of 50 people: You’re breathing faster, heart is racing, you’re feeling flushed, your face is turning red, your mind goes blank and you forget what you were trying to say. The “fight or flight” response is definitely not needed here and usually makes things worse. In the modern world, anxiety is another term used to describe a lower-grade (or chronic) state of fear where an individual might frequently feel nervous, restless, irritable, uncertain of themselves, mistrusting of others, or worrying about things going wrong.

Unfortunately, if an individual has difficulties managing their fears or anxieties, they can be compelled to engage in effective-but-problematic coping behaviors as a means of calming themselves down or attempting to prevent their fear response from being activated in the first place. Typical maladaptive coping tends to involve excessive avoidance of fear triggers (e.g., not talking about certain topics, avoiding certain people or situations); escaping situations when the fear is triggered (e.g., leaving a family gathering too early, leaving a store before you’re done shopping); excessively trying to prevent the anticipated threat (e.g., studying all night long, over-preparing, triple checking your locks); seeking excessive assurance or help from others; relying on substances to calm (e.g., alcohol, over-reliance on sedating medications, opiates or other drugs); relying on other external stimuli or distractions to calm (e.g., excessively working or staying busy, eating, shopping, gambling). These coping strategies, while often highly effective at reducing anxiety in the short term, usually lead to worsened anxiety, the development of other mental health difficulties, and chronic life problems in the long run (e.g., depression, substance abuse, relationship issues, problems with work or school performance).

There are a number of approaches a person should take if they are wanting to better manage their fears or anxieties. Firstly, practicing strategies to help you manage and reduce the sympathetic nervous system response is a good place to start. These strategies include active relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and meditation. Also, becoming more aware of your thoughts, identifying any thoughts or beliefs that you have that may be excessive or unrealistic (“I can’t sign up for that project at work; I’m going to make an absolute fool of myself!”), and attempting to think in a more balanced and realistic way (“They don’t expect me to be perfect… I have enough time to prepare and do a decent job”).

Another approach to reducing anxiety and fear is to actually start to DO the things that make you nervous or fearful. Afraid of talking to people? Start practicing talking to people! Afraid of snakes? Start purposefully looking at pictures of snakes, videos of snakes, learn information about snakes, go to a pet store or zoo to see (or even TOUCH) a snake in person. With this approach, make sure that you are actually and objectively safe when attempting to face these fears. I would never encourage someone who has a fear of snakes to attempt to shake hands with a rattlesnake; don’t do it, you could literally get hurt. So, be sensible. With repetition, safely exposing yourself to the things that trigger your anxiety can eventually allow the fear response to reduce and dissipate over time.

If fear or anxiety is causing you distress or interfering with your daily life, please consider working with a licensed psychologist or counselor. Working with a professional can provide you with an individualized, guided, and evidence-based approach to improving your symptoms and quality of life.