In the face of fear

This content mentions anxiety, panic attacks, depression and trauma, which some people may find triggering.

Fear is arguably our most powerful emotion. It is critically important in dictating how we think, feel and behave. Like all the basic emotions, it has evolved to ensure our survival and protects us from all sorts of harm. But it can also cause us harm. It can harm our health and wellbeing, relationships, capacity for learning, community involvement and life-chances. It can also lead us to act in ways that, although intended to be geared towards self-protection and survival, may harm our loved ones, neighbours, fellow citizens and perceived enemies.

Research carried out for this report suggests that we are becoming more fearful as a nation. Our survey emphatically indicates that people perceive our world as having become more frightening and frightened. The Government’s Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys, published in February 2009, show significant increases in anxiety disorders between 1993 and 2007. We believe these trends are linked. The more fearful people feel in the general population, the more people will be tipped over into diagnosable anxiety disorders. These findings deserve attention, not just because fear and the perception of fear have such wide-ranging costs and are factors in so much personal and collective suffering, but because there are concrete measures we can take to counter them. Much of our fear is not inevitable.

Man looking thoughtful

Fear is a feature of nearly all clinical mental health problems and is a root cause of some of the most common ones. As well as anxiety disorders themselves, fear is strongly associated with depression, psychosis, and attempting suicide in the past year. Fear is also strongly linked to poor physical health. People with generalised anxiety disorder have been found to be at higher risk of coronary heart disease, while anxiety has been linked to increased incidence of gastrointestinal problems, arthritis, migraine, allergies, thyroid disease and chronic respiratory disorders such as asthma. People with anxiety disorders are four times as likely as others to develop high blood pressure, and many studies have shown a relationship between anxiety and reduced white blood cell function, a sign of immune system weakness. There is also emerging evidence of a link between stress and Alzheimer’s Disease. Anxiety is also associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and poor diet.

Many authors writing about rising fear and anxiety have been quick to point out the relative safety in which the majority of the UK population has lived since the Second World War. Despite the evidence that most of us are prey to far fewer immediate threats to our health and safety in the form of disease, war, destitution and other forms of suffering than in many previous eras, our experience of fear, which evolved to alert us to such threats, is reported as growing (indeed, in our survey, 60% of people say there is increased fear because the world has become a more dangerous place). For example: fear of crime continues to rise, even though crime itself has fallen in the last decade. Many parents are nervous about allowing their children outside on their own, but they are more likely to be involved in a serious accident while at home, as well as being more prone to physical and mental ill-health through lack of exercise.

While our cultural environment is important, we would find things to fear whatever environment we were in. This is because fear is part of our genetic inheritance and we can’t eliminate it. We need to be aware of it, live with it, manage it, and live in spite of it.

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