Fear is a natural response that triggers specific behaviour patterns telling us how to cope in adverse or unexpected situations that threaten our wellbeing or survival – like a fire or a physical attack.
Fear is a familiar emotion because it’s something everyone experiences. While we think of it as an essential part of being human, it’s also a psychological, physiological and behavioural state we share with animals.
We can also feel fear when faced with less dangerous situations, like exams, public speaking, a new job, a date, or even a party – anything we might feel could be very difficult or challenging in some way.
Fear and anxiety are often used to describe similar things but fear has a specific, immediate context which provokes classic ‘fight or flight’ reflexes. This automatic response occurs faster than conscious thought and releases surges of adrenaline which disappear quickly once the threat has passed.
Anxiety, on the other hand, involves a lingering apprehension, a chronic sense of worry, tension or dread. The things that make us anxious are usually more unclear than the things that evoke fear in us. It’s usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, rather than something happening right now too.
When you feel frightened, your mind prepares you to respond to the emergency or threat. It increases the blood flow to your muscles, increases your blood sugar and focuses your mind on the thing that’s scaring you. This has a number of effects:
- your heartbeat gets very fast – maybe it feels irregular
- your breathing gets very fast
- your muscles feel weak
- you sweat more
- your stomach is churning or your bowels feel loose
- you find it hard to concentrate on anything else
- you feel dizzy
- you feel frozen to the spot
- you can’t eat
- you get hot and cold sweats
- you get dry mouth
- your muscles tense up.
Fear can last for a short time and then pass but it can also last much longer and stay with us. In some cases it can take over our lives, affecting appetite, sleep and concentration for long periods of time. Fear stops us travelling, going to work or school, or even leaving the house. It prevents us from doing simple things and impacts on our health too.
Doctors class fear as a mental health problem only when it’s severe and long-lasting. If you feel anxious all the time for several weeks or if it feels like your fears are taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for help. The same is true if a phobia is causing problems in your daily life, or if you have panic attacks.
Talking To Your Doctor
It’s often hard to admit that something scares you to your doctor – talking about your feelings can be difficult. It’s often helpful to write a few notes about how you have been feeling before you visit. You can also take a friend or relative with you to the appointment.
Talking therapies like counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy, including self-help computerised cognitive behavioural therapy, are very effective for people with anxiety problems.
Visit your doctor to find out more.
You can learn a lot about managing anxiety from asking other people who have experienced it. Support groups or self-help groups bring together people with similar experiences so they can share experiences and encourage each other to try out new ways of managing their worries.
YourMentalHealth.ie, your doctor or your local library will have details of support groups near you. You can learn a lot about managing anxiety from asking other people who have experienced it.
Drug treatments can provide short-term relief from the symptoms, but they won’t cure anxiety problems. Medication may be most useful when combined with other treatments or support.
Some people become overwhelmed by fear and want to avoid situations that might make them frightened or anxious. It can be hard to break this cycle, but you can learn to feel less fearful and to cope with your fear so it doesn’t stop you enjoying life.
Face Your Fear If You Can
If you always avoid situations that scare you, you might stop doing things you want or need to do and you won’t be able to test out whether the situation is always as bad as you expect.
Try to learn more about your fears. Keep a record of when it happens and what happens. You can try setting yourself small, achievable goals to face your fears. You could carry with you a list of things that help at times when you are likely to become frightened.
Learning relaxation techniques can help you with the mental and physical feelings of fear. It can help just to drop your shoulders and breathe deeply. Or imagine yourself in a relaxing place. You could also learn things like yoga, meditation or massage.
Take more physical exercise. This can trigger brain chemicals that improve your mood. Exercise needs concentration, and this can take your mind off your fears.
Eat lots of fruit and vegetables and try to avoid too much sugar. When you eat very sweet things the initial sugar ‘rush’ is followed by a sharp dip in sugar levels in your blood and this can give you anxious feelings. Try to avoid drinking too much tea or coffee as caffeine can increase anxiety levels.
– see Diet for more information
Avoid Alcohol or Drink in Moderation
It’s very common for people to drink alcohol when they feel nervous to give them ‘Dutch courage’. But the after-effects of alcohol can make you feel even more afraid.
Faith and Spirituality
If you are religious or spiritual, this can help you feel connected to something bigger than yourself. It can provide a way of coping with everyday stress. Church and other faith groups can be a valuable support network.
Football can have a major impact on mental health. It is thought to affect emotions, relationships, identity and self-esteem. In a recent study, one in four fans said football was one of the most important things in their lives.
When time is at a premium for most people, leisure activity and entertainment fulfils the psychological need to escape from the stresses and strains of life and go into another world for a period of time. The time set aside for football is often sacrosanct and provides an opportunity to play.
It has been suggested that the attraction of sports events over other forms of entertainment is the combination of comfort in ritual with unpredictable outcome. People can look forward to the comfort of the familiar with the thrill of the unknown.
Basking in reflected glory
When your team does well, it prompts feelings of happiness, well-being and collective euphoria. Fans ‘bask in reflected glory’ (BIRG). It has been suggested that ‘BIRGing’ improves mood both in individuals and in communities. If a team loses a match, however, it does not necessarily have a negative impact on mental health.
It is thought that watching football may be cathartic. It has been suggested that the atmosphere of a live football match is socially inclusive. Fans step into their team identity by wearing clothes and using language they would not usually use in their everyday lives. They can behave in ways that encourage ‘a cathartic release of tension’ through shouting, screaming, gesturing and chanting. Pent up internalised feelings and intense emotion such as frustration annoyance or sadness can be vented in a socially acceptable way. Men can express and release internalised emotion that they don’t feel able to express in other ways.
For young men in particular, the opportunity to externalise tension and emotion is important to maintaining health. Young men are at the highest risk of suicide – it is the most common cause of death for young men under the age of 35. This age group is one of the most dominant in football crowds across the country.
Cutting off reflected failure
Sometimes fans feel a sense of pessimism prior to a match. But this can also have a positive overall impact in that it can unite fans. A refusal to believe that things might go well is thought to protect against disappointment. This has been referred to as ‘CORF’ or cutting off reflected failure. Having a shared moan after a defeat is also another way of bonding.
The World Cup in particular may have a positive effect on mental health. One study found there was a reduction in numbers of emergency psychiatric admissions during and after World Cup finals.
Watching and supporting football provides an opportunity for connection and belonging in an age where technology means there is less and less direct physical interaction.
According to ‘social identity theory’, fans separate groups and teams into social categories and identify with the group/team to which they see themselves belonging. Geography or family tradition usually informs which team someone supports.
Supporting a football club, watching a live game or gathering to watch a match on television are all ways of participating in group activity with people who share the same values and interests. This provides a sense of belonging, identification and inclusion within a larger group. It creates a tangible social identity. Identification with the players as people and the club also promote a sense of belonging.
Because this belonging is a key part of their identity, people will continue to support their team even if the team lets them down. This would suggest that the psychological value derived from this social identity is greater than that derived from a good or bad performance.
Social identity theory suggests that maintenance of a positive self-identity entails developing comparisons between the ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’. A fan’s team is the in-group and the opposing team is the out-group. These rivalries strengthen a sense of identity and the sense of ‘sticking together’ through thick and thin. Supporting your team is a commitment to the team and to the other fans.
It has also been found that people perceive fellow fans to be superior to other fans. They are thought to be more committed, enthusiastic, objective and analytical. By association, this ‘superiority’ enhances the person’s own self-esteem, if you belong to this group, you must also be more committed, enthusiastic and have greater powers of objectivity and analysis. (Football provides an opportunity for every fan to be the ‘expert’ pundit.
However, the stronger the identification with the team, the stronger the emotional reaction to wins and losses and the more extreme the highs and lows.
For most fans, football is a part of their lives. However, for some it can become the main focus. In the US, these people are referred to as ‘high identifiers’ – people whose identity is intertwined with a team and who will have extreme emotions in the face of defeat. Because identification with the team is a central component of the self-identify of high-identified fans, the team’s performances have strong implications for their self-worth – they are ‘part’ of the team.
High identifiers on the losing side can experience significant psychological problems. Studies have found losing fans can become anxious and irritable, and experience sleep problems and headaches. Some fans can become withdrawn and anti-social after a loss.
Commentators have suggested that for some fans, supporting football provides an opportunity to re-enact the ritual of battle. However this can be taken too far and lead to serious acts of violence, differentiating the fan from the ‘football hooligan’. The available evidence on hooligan offenders suggest that they are generally young, in their late teens or 20s, although some ‘leaders’ are older. It has been suggested that initially much behaviour is simply ritualistic and non-violent verbal abuse and threats. However, ‘core hooligans’ are more interested in fighting or ‘running’ rival groups.
Club football can be an attractive venue for testing masculinity. It is thought by some that particular groups of young men may be socialised into a set of standards that value and publicly reward assertive and openly aggressive expressions of masculinity. They are expected to be ‘manly’ and able to ‘look after themselves’. They ‘defend’ their own, their gang’s, and their town’s reputation against the intruders.
Boredom and limited opportunity for fulfilment in other areas may also play a role. The ‘social drama’ of the fight and the opportunity it provides for competition, achieving ‘honour’ and inflicting shame on opponents may motivate violent behaviour. Former hooligans have said that fights can be anticipated and enjoyed because of the challenge and the way it makes them feel. Some fighters describe the football action as being ‘better than sex’.
This has been termed as a ‘flow’ or ‘peak’ experience – an intense, shared emotionality, an outpouring of joy or sadness, and a strengthening of a common social identity. However, unlike non-violent fans, the hooligan rejects the vicarious role of football supporter for the more active and ‘satisfying’ role of direct participant in confrontations.
There is a view that football is a replacement for pack hunting.
Heavy drinking too is often a key element in a ‘good day out’. Many violent offences by football fans are related to alcohol.
Having strong relationships is known to be a key factor in the maintenance of positive mental health. Football plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of social and familial relationships. Over 90% of people who attend matches go with friends, family or colleagues.
Football provides a platform to communicate with others, gossip (known to protect mental well-being), exchange views, and bond through celebration and commiseration. It helps people maintain relationships by providing a reason to meet up regularly. Football is a social leveller which allows people from different social and cultural backgrounds to connect. There is always something to talk about or have a view on. It is particularly helpful for people who are shy or who find it difficult to connect with people on other levels.
Football strengthens bonds between family members, most notably between fathers and sons. Many parents see football as an important part of their relationship with their children. In one study it was found that almost every fan was taken to their first match by their father.
Time set aside to watch football is done so deliberately and becomes an expected routine. It generates conversation and provides an opportunity for parent and child to catch up. It creates and protects ‘quality time’. This quality time often continues long after children have grown up and so maintains parent/child relationships throughout life.
Football only has a positive effect when it is kept in perspective. An over-reliance on or obsession with football can limit the development of other interests and have a negative impact on male/female relationships and may divert attention away from other family responsibilities.
Football might have an even more beneficial impact on mental health if more fans took to the field, as exercise is known to have a positive effect on our mental well-being.
For Further Support Contact The Samaritans
Samaritans is a unique charity dedicated to reducing feelings of isolation and disconnection that can lead to suicide. Every six seconds they respond to a call for help. They’re there 24/7, before, during and after a crisis and they make sure there’s always someone there, for anyone who needs someone.
Our friendships are among the most valuable relationships we have. We gain in various ways from different friendships. We may talk to friends in confidence about things we wouldn’t discuss with our families. Our friends may annoy us, but they can also keep us going.
Friendship is a crucial element in protecting our mental health. We need to talk to our friends and we want to listen when our friends want to talk to us. Our friends can keep us grounded and can help us get things in perspective. It is worth putting effort into maintaining our friendships and making new friends. Friends form one of the foundations of our ability to cope with the problems that life throws at us.
When someone has a mental health problem or is experiencing mental distress, it is important to try to keep friendships going, even though people with mental health problems often want to see their friends less than usual.
Friendship can play a key role in helping someone live with or recover from a mental health problem and overcome the isolation that often comes with it. It’s natural to worry when a friend is troubled and most of us don’t want to give up on a friend in distress, however difficult it may be to support them. Many people who do manage to keep their friendship going feel that it’s stronger as a result.
Friendships work both ways. A mental health problem doesn’t mean that you’re never able to support or laugh with someone else.
“My friend helped me to get a grip on myself by making it clear it wasn’t acceptable or safe for me to allow my condition to dominate my life.”
How does mental ill health affect friendships?
- People with more severe forms of mental illness have smaller social networks than others and have more family members than friends in their social circle.
- People with smaller social networks, with fewer intimate relationships, find it more difficult to manage social situations.
- People with more long-lasting mental health problems often have relationships mainly with other people with mental health problems.
- People with mental health problems often anticipate rejection from other people because of the stigma associated with mental health. They may avoid social contact, as a form of ‘self-stigma’.
“She has just been diagnosed as being bi-polar. When she drinks she gets very upset and angry so we rarely invite her to join us when alcohol is involved. I also make more of an effort to listen.”
Friendships change and sometimes they fade away or end abruptly. You may want to take time to reflect on each of your friendships and what they offer you.
You are an active partner in your friendships. If a friendship is not beneficial to both of you, you have the power to negotiate changes to the activities you have always done together. On some occasions, you may decide that it’s best for a friendship to end.
If a friend no longer contacts you, it’s understandable to feel rejected, but you are not responsible for other people’s reaction to your problems. If one person ends your friendship, it doesn’t mean that others will do the same.
If you are the friend of someone experiencing mental health problems who seems to be withdrawing from your friendship, try to understand what your friend may be going through. Their difficulties may be only temporary. Give them the space they need and make sure they know how they can contact you at a later date if they decide to get back in touch.
Some people never make it past the first hurdle: talking about the fact that they are experiencing mental distress. If you have a mental health problem, you may feel ashamed of ‘admitting’ to it. You may feel that you are bothering your friend or fear being labelled.
You don’t have to tell your friends – and you certainly don’t have to tell everyone. There is no need to tell anyone about what you are experiencing if you don’t feel comfortable with it. Some people find it helpful to draw up a balance sheet of the pros and cons of telling or not telling people about their problem.
Tough as it can be, talking to close friends can be important for both of you. Even if you don’t talk about it again, having the issue out in the open means that you don’t have to worry about mentioning it by accident or ‘explain away’ medication or appointments. It may also make clear why you may be behaving in a particular way or why you don’t want to go out or talk to them much.
“I wanted my friends to know so they … would cut me some slack if I behaved oddly… don’t think I’m just ignoring them… could help me.”
Pick a friend you trust as the first person you tell. Work out how to talk about your mental health problem in a way that will make it as easy as possible for both of you to avoid embarrassment.
You may want to practise your opening sentence or you may want to play it by ear. Choose a time and a place where you will both feel comfortable. You may want to think about whether:
- the place is quiet or noisy, indoors or outside
- you are on your own or among other people, for instance in a pub or cafe
- you are doing an activity together, such as going for a walk, or just sitting down for a chat.
You could phone or write to your friend, but if you do, try and talk to them face to face afterwards as well.
Some people react dramatically to news like this. Be ready for your friend to be shocked or not to take it in at first. Although mental health problems are common, this may be the first time they’ve heard someone talk about having one.
They may feel awkward and not know how to respond. This may be because they feel so worried about you or perhaps your news has struck a chord with something in their own life. They may even suggest that you’re fine and just need to ‘pull yourself together’.
Most people don’t know very much about mental health issues so it may be a good idea to tell your friend about the problem itself, but don’t overwhelm them. Take it one step at a time.
If you’re the friend of someone with a mental health problem, you may be concerned about them. The most important thing is to tell them that you’re still their friend. If your friend is comfortable with being touched, a hug shows that you care about them and that you accept them whatever problems they are having.
“My friend asked me questions, didn’t just assume things, she really wanted to know.”
Take your cue from your friend. Are they comfortable with questions or would they rather talk about something else? Don’t promise things you may not be able to deliver. How can you help them best?
“My friend realised I had taken an overdose and rang for an ambulance… but has never judged me or criticised my action.”
People with mental health problems often need different things from their friends at different times and friends show their support in different ways.
“They let me know I could call them whenever I needed to.”
If you’re the friend, the most valuable support you can provide is just being there to talk and listen. People really appreciate that their friends have made time to contact them, visit them and invite them round.
Mental health problems are so misunderstood that someone who acknowledges your problem, continues to accept you and treats you with compassion is doing something extremely important to aid your recovery.
“My friend phoned me, talked to me about normal stuff, sent me letters, took me out sometimes.”
Your friend isn’t looking for another mental health professional and should expect nothing more than your affection and your support as a friend. Some people with mental health problems want to go on being as ‘normal’ as possible with their friends and that may mean continuing to laugh and have fun together. They don’t want to be identified by their problem, even if you need to adapt some of the activities you used to do together.
“I didn’t know how often to ask ‘how she was’ (especially in front of other people).”
However, someone who insists that they’re ‘fine’ may actually be in a pretty bad way. They may just need to talk or they may need professional help. Men are often particularly reluctant to talk about emotional issues.
Practical help can be valuable, too. Cleaning, shopping and basic household tasks can seem impossible to someone who is having a difficult time. Many people really appreciate friends who help them manage their finances or take them to appointments – or indeed just take them out. Another form of practical help is by tracking down information – for example about therapies, organisations and services.
If you feel more comfortable offering practical help than emotional support, explain this to your friend. It is important that you acknowledge their distress, even if you don’t talk about it much.
If you’re miserable, suicidal, confused or having mood swings, you’re not likely to be your ‘usual self’. It’s intensely frustrating – for you, and for everyone around you – to realise that you don’t feel up to doing the things you used to take for granted such as going to work, seeing your friends, getting exercise or playing with your children.
If you can’t go out – or you can’t get out of bed – you become increasingly isolated and perhaps hard to be with. And if you show other symptoms like hearing voices or you’re convinced that someone is doing you down, it’s hard for you to talk to other people and it’s very hard for them to talk to you.
“I gave my friend a lot of support and at times felt close to burning out. Now that my friend has recovered we are closer than before. However, I worry that I might not be able to cope with another episode.”
Friends who do hang on in there can feel out of their depth, frustrated or emotionally drained. You may feel that the person you used to know has changed and so has the balance of who needs whom in the friendship.
“It is difficult to manage the friendship so it still feels balanced.”
Some people reach the point where, instead of being a friend, they feel they’ve become more of a carer. You may feel responsible for your friend and worry about what would happen if you weren’t around. It can be painful and embarrassing – on both sides – to admit that this is happening and it can be hard to get the balance back, even if your friend’s mental health improves. But you don’t need to cope alone and setting clear limits to the support you can give is not the same as rejecting your friend.
These are five steps that research shows can help people with mental health problems:
- Assess risk of suicide or self-harm
- Listen non-judgmentally
- Give reassurance and information
- Encourage the person to get appropriate professional help
- Encourage self-help strategies.
If you have a mental health problem and you’re worried that you’re making too many demands on your friend, one of the most important things you can do is thank them. Make it clear – in words or actions – that you appreciate what they are doing for you.
Your friendship may change for a while or it may change permanently. However, it doesn’t have to vanish. Nor does it have to take over your life. Underneath everything that is going on, you’re still the people who became friends in the first place. We all have our ups and downs and need the support of our friends.
If you don’t want to turn to your friends, or your friends just don’t want to listen or you want to take some of the pressure off them, there are other forms of informal help.
Self-help and peer support groups are often useful. You may have little in common with everyone else in the room, but you will share one thing.
You could join a group centred around an activity: a book group, a chess club or an exercise class.
If you don’t want to join a group, try going to places where there are lots of people. You could go to your local library. Leisure centres usually have cafés. You don’t have to talk to other people if you don’t want to, but will be in company while you sit with a drink and a newspaper for a while.
If you’ve got internet access, online communities can also be supportive, whether or not they are focused around mental health problems. It can be reassuring to know that this is an arena where nobody knows anything about your personal life.