This guide provides you with tips on how to overcome fear and anxiety.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions. It has a very strong effect on your mind and body. Fear can create strong signals of response when we’re in emergencies – for instance if we are caught in a fire or are being attacked.
Read 'How to manage and reduce stress'
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions. It has a very strong effect on your mind and body. 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.
Lots of things make us feel afraid. Being afraid of some things – like fires – can keep you safe. Fearing failure can make you try to do well so that you won’t fail, but it can also stop you from doing well if the feeling is too strong.
What you’re afraid of and how you act when you’re afraid of something can vary per person. Knowing what makes you afraid and why can be the first step to sorting out problems with fear.
Manage and reduce stress:
How can we manage and reduce stress? Our free downloadable pocket guide offers you 101 tips: www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-tostress.
Because anxiety is a type of fear, the things we’ve described fear above are also true for anxiety.
The word ‘anxiety’ tends to be used to describe worry, or when fear is nagging and persists over time. It is used when the fear is about something in the future rather than what is happening right now.
Anxiety is a word often used by health professionals when they’re describing persistent fear. The ways that you feel when you’re frightened and anxious are very similar, as the basic emotion is the same.
When you feel frightened or seriously anxious, your mind and body work quickly. These are some of the things that might happen:
- Your heart beats very fast – maybe it feels irregular
- You breathe very fast
- Your muscles feel weak
- You sweat a lot
- Your stomach churns, 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 have hot and cold sweats
- You get a dry mouth
- You get very tense muscles These things occur because your body, sensing fear, is preparing you for an emergency, so it makes your blood flow to the muscles, increases blood sugar, and gives you the mental ability to focus on the thing that your body perceives as a threat. With anxiety, in the longer term, you may have some of the above symptoms as well as a more nagging sense of fear, and you may get irritable, have trouble sleeping, develop headaches, or have trouble getting on with work and planning for the future; you might have problems having sex and might lose self-confidence.
Early humans needed the fast, powerful responses that fear causes, as they were often in situations of physical danger; however, we no longer face the same threats in modern-day living.
Despite this, our minds and bodies still work the same way as our early ancestors, and we have the same reactions to our modern worries about bills, travel and social situations. But we can’t run away from or physically attack these problems!
The physical feelings of fear can be scary in themselves – especially if you are experiencing them and don’t know why or if they seem out of proportion to the situation. Instead of alerting you to danger and preparing you to respond to it, your fear or anxiety can kick in for any perceived threat, which could be imaginary or minor.
Fear may be a one-off feeling when you are faced with something unfamiliar.
But it can also be an everyday, long-lasting problem – even if you can’t put your finger on why. Some people constantly feel a constant sense of anxiety without any particular trigger.
There are plenty of triggers for fear in everyday life, and you can’t always figure out why you are frightened or how likely you are to be harmed. Even if you can see how out of proportion a fear is, the emotional part of your brain keeps sending danger signals to your body.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is when you feel overwhelmed by the physical and mental feelings of fear – the signs listed under ‘What do fear and anxiety feel like?’ People with panic attacks say that they find it hard to breathe, and they may worry that they’re having a heart attack or will lose control of their body. See the ‘Support and information’ section at the end of this booklet if you want help with panic attacks.
What is a phobia?
A phobia is an extreme fear of a particular animal, thing, place or situation. People with phobias have an overwhelming need to avoid contact with the specific cause of the anxiety or fear. The thought of coming into contact with the cause of the phobia makes you anxious or panicky.
How do I know if I need help?
Fear and anxiety can affect all of us 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 or try one of the websites or numbers listed at the back of this booklet. The same is true if a phobia is causing problems in your daily life or if you are experiencing panic attacks.
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. You won’t be able to test out whether the situation is always as bad as you expect, so you miss 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. Exposing yourself to your fears can be an effective way of overcoming this anxiety.
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. Keep an anxiety diary or thought record to note when and what happens. You can try setting yourself small, achievable goals for facing your fears. You could carry a list of things that help when you are likely to become frightened or anxious. This can be an effective way of addressing the underlying beliefs that are behind your anxiety.
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. Keep a record of when it happens and what happens.
Increase the amount of exercise you do. Exercise requires some concentration, which can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.
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 try learning things like yoga, meditation, massage, or listen to the Mental Health Foundation’s wellbeing podcasts at: www.mentalhealth.org.uk/ help/podcasts.
Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and try to avoid too much sugar. Resulting dips in your blood sugar can give you anxious feelings. Try to avoid drinking too much tea and coffee, as caffeine can increase anxiety levels.
Avoid alcohol, or drink in moderation
It’s very common for people to drink when they feel nervous. Some people call alcohol ‘Dutch courage’, but the after-effects of alcohol can make you feel even more afraid or anxious.
Some people find that complementary therapies or exercises, such as relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, or t’ai chi, help them to deal with their anxiety.
Whether religious or spiritual, this can give you a way of feeling connected to something bigger than yourself. Faith can provide a way of coping with everyday stress, and attending church and other faith groups can connect you with a valuable support network.
Talking therapies, like counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, are very effective for people with anxiety problems, including Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which takes you through a series of self-help exercises on screen. Visit your GP to find out more.
Drug treatments are used to provide short-term help rather than looking at the root of the anxiety problems. Drugs may be most useful when they are combined with other treatments or support.
You can learn much about managing anxiety from asking other people who have experienced it. Local support groups or self-help groups bring together people with similar experiences so that they can hear each other’s stories, share tips and encourage each other to try out new ways to manage themselves Your doctor, library or local Citizens Advice bureau will have details of support groups near you.
Some people smoke, drink alcohol and use recreational drugs to reduce stress. However, this often makes problems worse.
Research shows that smoking may increase feelings of anxiety. Nicotine creates an immediate, temporary sense of relaxation, leading to withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Similarly, people may use alcohol to manage and cope with difficult feelings and temporarily reduce feelings of anxiety. However, alcohol may make existing mental health problems worse. It can make you feel more anxious and depressed in the long run. It is important to know the recommended limits and drink responsibly.
Prescription drugs, such as tranquillisers and sleeping tablets, which may have been prescribed for good reasons, can also cause mental and physical health problems if used for long periods. Street drugs, such as cannabis or ecstasy, are usually taken for recreational purposes. For some people, problems start as their bodies get used to repeated use of the drug. This leads to the need for increased doses to maintain the same effect.
Stress is a natural reaction to difficult situations in life, such as work, family, relationships and money problems.
We mentioned earlier that moderate stress could help us perform better in challenging situations, but too much or prolonged stress can lead to physical problems. This can include lower immunity levels, digestive and intestinal difficulties such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or mental health problems such as depression. Therefore, we must manage our stress and keep it healthy to prevent long-term damage to our bodies and minds.
When you are feeling stressed, try to take these steps:
• Realise when it is causing you a problem. You need to make the connection between feeling tired or ill and the pressures you face. Do not ignore physical warnings such as tense muscles, over-tiredness, headaches or migraines.
• Identify the causes. Try to identify the underlying causes. Sort the possible reasons for your stress into those with a practical solution, those that will get better anyway given time, and those you can’t do anything about. Try to let go of those in the second and third groups – there is no point in worrying about things you can’t change or things that will sort themselves out.
• Review your lifestyle. Are you taking on too much? Are there things you are doing which could be handed over to someone else? Can you do things in a more leisurely way? You may need to prioritise things you are trying to achieve and reorganise your life so that you are not trying to do everything at once.
You can also help protect yourself from stress in several ways:
• Eat healthily. A healthy diet will reduce the risks of diet-related diseases. Also, there is growing evidence showing how food affects our mood. Feelings of wellbeing can be protected by ensuring that our diet provides adequate amounts of brain nutrients such as essential vitamins and minerals and water.
• Be aware of your smoking and drinking. Even though they may seem to reduce tension, this is misleading as they often make problems worse.
• Exercise. Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress. Even going out to get some fresh air and doing some light physical exercise, like walking to the shops, can help.
• Take time out. Take time to relax. Saying ‘I just can’t take the time off’ is no use if you are forced to take time off later through ill health. Striking a balance between responsibility to others and responsibility to yourself is vital in reducing stress levels.
• Be mindful. Mindfulness meditation can be practised anywhere at any time. Research has suggested that it can reduce the effects of stress, anxiety and other related problems such as insomnia, poor concentration and low moods in some people. Our ‘Be Mindful’ website features a specially-developed online course in mindfulness, as well as details of local courses in your area: bemindful.co.uk
• Get some restful sleep. Sleeping problems are common when you’re suffering from stress. Try to ensure you get enough rest. For more tips on getting a good night’s sleep, read our guide ‘How to...sleep better’ at: mentalhealth.org.uk/howto
• Don’t be too hard on yourself. Try to keep things in perspective. After all, we all have bad days