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.
What is the difference between fear and anxiety?
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.
How does fear affect us?
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.
How can I help myself?
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.
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.
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.