Fear: What to do About Chronic Worry & Anxiety
What is fear? Information on the causes of fear and help for overcoming fear.
Select a Topic
- What is Fear?
- Diagnosing Fear
- What Causes Fear?
- Common Causes of Fear in Children
- More Information on Feeling Fear
What is Fear?
Fear is an instinctual response to possible danger, an emotion that is pre-programmed into all animals and people.
Biologically, when a person experiences fear response, certain areas on their brain—the amygdala and hypothalamus—are activated. These areas appear to control the first physical response to fear.
Chemicals such as adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol are released into the bloodstream, causing certain physical reactions such as:
- Rapid heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Tightening of muscles
- Sharpened or redirected senses
- Dilation of the pupils (to let in more light)
- Increased sweating
People who have experienced intense fear will often remember the moment disaster stuck and how time seemed to slow down. Their fight or flight response kicked in and they knew exactly what to do without consciously thinking about it. They may have experienced extraordinary strength (some have even been able to lift a car to save their trapped loved one) and they felt no pain. These are all protective mechanisms to increase our chances of survival.
There are numerous causes of fear. Some are more well-known than others, especially specific phobias such as the fear of spiders (arachnophobia), blood (hemophobia), heights (acrophobia) and exams (testophobia). Other lesser-known types of fear are fear of mirrors (catoptrophobia), hair (chaetophobia), being tickled by feathers (pteronophobia), and work (ergophobia). Social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder, is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. It is characterized by being intensely afraid of being watched and judged by others in social situations.
Diagnosing Fear, Anxiety Disorders and Panic Attacks
Some types of fear can be useful to sharpen our minds. For example, a small amount of nervousness before an important speech serves a purpose – it encourages you to prepare, focus on your topic and avoid making a fool of yourself.
On the other hand,excessive fear can become crippling, or even make you feel like escaping when it is not appropriate to do so.
When nervousness gets out of control, or when we’re afraid of something that cannot actually harm us, it can affect our daily functioning.
Future-orientated fear is known as anxiety. While fear happens at the moment danger arises, anxiety is characterized by apprehension because we don’t know what’s going to happen next, and we cannot control upcoming events. Anxiety disorders include a number of different medical conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Experiencing an alarm response when there is nothing to be afraid of is known as panic. Many people are familiar with this type of emotion and it is often (although not always) accompanied by a phobia.
Panic is an immediate physical response to unrealistic and irrational fears.Panic attacks can have a huge effect on both your emotional and physical well-being – as well as your ability to reach your full potential.
If negative thoughts and emotions are interfering with your daily life or well-being, contact your doctor for help. He or she may recommend treatment options, therapy or a support group to help you.
What Causes Fear?
While it is important to be aware of potential and real threats, it is also important to react appropriately to them. For most of us, our initial startle response subsides as soon as we realize there is no actual threat in an object or situation.
However, this is not always the case. There are many people for whom fear becomes maladaptive, as they struggle with anxiety, phobias and panic attacks. Children are especially at risk, as they are not always able to rationalize emotions that are unrealistic or unfounded.
What is fear like for children? To the children experiencing this emotion, the threats feel very real. Parents often have difficulty consoling their child and reassuring them that there is actually nothing to be afraid of. Unaddressed childhood anxiety can have a negative impact on healthy human development and may predispose children to problems with anxiety and panic disorder in later life.
Common Causes of Fear in Children
When children grow older, especially around age 2, they can become afraid of everyday situations that didn’t bother them before. One of the major fears in children is being separated from their parents or family members. Being afraid of separation is common for both toddlers and school-aged children, due to being left with a babysitter, nursery, or school. While some children experience nervousness over their parent’s departure and return, others may be scared of their teachers, surroundings, or other children. Most of the time, these emotions will subside as children start to spend more time with their teacher and classmates.
Feeling scared of the dark is one of the most common and hardest-to-conquer fears in children. Children may harbor this feeling well into their school-aged years. Fear of the dark resonates differently with age. Younger children may be scared of monsters lurking in the shadows, while older children may excessively worry about burglars or other tangible threats. Most families find it beneficial to leave a light on at night, and gradually reduce the light over an extended period of time.
More Information on Fear
Helpful Tips for Dealing with Fearfulness
- During a shock or a near-miss, your body uses large amounts of glucose in your blood to prepare for the flight or fight response. Afterward, it’s a good idea to drink something sweet, like a glass of fruit juice, to quickly replenish blood sugar levels.
- When you feel like negative thoughts are getting the better of you, take a moment to pause. Close your eyes, take deep slow breaths and focus your attention on the sound of your breathing.
- Try not to let your mind get carried away with negative thoughts. Keep focused and concentrate on the present moment. By living in the now, you can avoid getting caught up in the "what-ifs" and "should-haves."
- Put your fears into perspective. Fear can sometimes take over rational thought. Take a second (even if it’s after the event) and logically think of what you were afraid of. Ask yourself: "What was the realistic threat?" and "What is the rational way of dealing with such a threat?".
- Learn to let it go. Sometimes when something scares us, we feel the effects long after the fact. Our minds tend to hold on to negative feelings, self-criticisms and apprehension. Try letting it all go once the threat has passed and talk out your feelings with family members or a friend you trust, or a therapist. Meditation and yoga are two other helpful ways of releasing negative thoughts and emotions.
- Try not to avoid the fear-inducing objects or situations. Instead, face them little by little, allowing yourself to slowly gain confidence and overcome what worries you.
- Products such as PureCalm™ for Naturally Soothed Nerves can support a calm, relaxed mood and help maintain a positive outlook.
- Heshmat, Shahram. “Anxiety vs. Fear. What is the Difference?” Psychology Today. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201812/anxiety-vs-fear
- Holland, Kimberly. “Everything You Need to Know About Anxiety.” Healthline. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety
- “How to Deal with Chronic Fear and Anxiety.” University of Minnesota. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/how-deal-chronic-fear-and-anxiety
- Osborn, Corinne O’Keefe. “Common and Unique Fears Explained.” Healthline. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health/list-of-phobias
- “Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml