What is fear?
Fear is a very powerful emotion. It has a very strong effect on the mind and body because it is one of our natural survival responses. It tells you what to do in an emergency, like a fire or if you are being attacked.
We can also feel fear when faced with less dangerous situations, like exams, public speaking, a new job, a date, or even a party. It is a natural response to something that a person feels is a threat.
Anxiety is a type of fear. It is usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, rather than something happening right now.
When you feel frightened or seriously anxious, your mind and body speed up. Some of the things that might happen are:
- heart beat gets very fast – maybe it feels irregular
- breathing gets very fast
- muscles feel weak
- sweat more
- stomach is churning or your bowels feel loose
- hard to concentrate on anything else
- feel dizzy
- feel frozen to the spot
- can’t eat
- hot and cold sweats
- dry mouth
- tense muscles.
These are all because your body is preparing you to respond to an emergency. it increases the blood flow to the muscles, increases your blood sugar and focuses your mind on the thing that’s scaring you.
With anxiety, you may have some of the above feelings as well as longer-term effects, such as:
- a more nagging sense of fear
- trouble sleeping
- trouble getting on with work and planning for the future
- problems having sex
- loss of self-confidence.
Fear and anxiety can last for a short time and then pass. But they can also last much longer and you can get stuck with them. In some cases they can take over your life. They can affect your appetite, sleep and concentration. They can stop people travelling, going to work or school, or even leaving the house.
This can hold you back from doing things you want or need to do, and affect your health. Health problems that are directly linked to fear include phobias, panic attacks and anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder.
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. This means you won’t have the chance to work out how to manage your fears and reduce your anxiety. Anxiety problems tend to increase if you get into this pattern.
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. 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 or anxious.
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, massage or try our wellbeing podcasts.
Take more physical exercise. This can trigger brain chemicals that improve your mood. Exercise needs concentration, and this can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.
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.
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 or anxious.
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.
Where can I get help for my fear or anxiety?
Fear and anxiety can affect all of us every now and then. It is only when it is severe and long-lasting that doctors class it as a mental health problem. 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.
It may be hard to admit to fears that most other people don’t seem to have, but asking for help is a sign of strength. The first step is usually to see your GP.
Talking about your feelings can be difficult so it’s often helpful to write a few notes about how you have been feeling beforehand. You can 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 GP 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.
Your doctor, library or local Citizens Advice Bureau
The Citizens Advice Bureau 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.
Further sources of information
Anxiety UK - helpline on 08444 775 774 (Monday - Friday 9.30am - 5.30pm)
NHS Choices - or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Anxiety Care Helpline - Helpline 020 8478 3400 Monday and Wednesday 9.45am – 3.45pm
You can find more information about talking therapies and finding a therapist on our Talking Therapies page.
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