Anxiety: Why We Fear Things That Don’t Actually Harm Us and How We Can Cope With The Struggle

This article does not mean to say that every anxiety is an unnecessary fear. But unnecessary fears can and do lead to generalized anxiety. The focus will be as such.

I’ve been wondering how to conquer fear. What is fear? Fear is a physiological reaction where the body is signaled to recognize you are in danger. It elevates the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and simultaneously suppresses the activity of the parasympathetic system. This leads to several changes in physiological function that you recognize as distressing. Some of these include constriction of blood vessels, secretion from sweat glands, sped up heart rate, and peristalsis of the digestive tract.

Signals come from the brain. A major area of the brain responsible for our sensation of fear is the amygdala. Other brain regions that are part of the limbic system are also involved in processing and signalling fear. Smell and memory are strongly linked to this system too. The amygdala is the prime center for processing basic emotion that is responsible for our survival. What is known as the “flight or fight” response stems from a working amygdala. An “amygdala hijack” is our body’s way of telling us that we are in danger.

How do we know what to fear? What threatens our survival is fearful. We can fear pain; both physical and emotional.

We can fear isolation. We can fear embarrassment or attention. We can fear truth and reality. We can fear loss. We can fear responsibility. We can fear change. We can fear impulse. We can fear our lack of control.  We can fear others. We can fear how others act or how they think. We can fear judgement. We can fear being lost. We can also fear being found.

So really there’re a lot of things we can fear. Most of these don’t seem to be fears for our survival though. Unnecessary fears can contribute to a range of anxieties. So why do we fear these things? How can they be rationalized? Maybe if left unstimulated by real danger, we develop other anxieties so that the physiological system can be in working order for when we actually need it. Another possibility is that we might actually benefit from these fears. I guess there is something to gain from fear if we work to overcome it.

There are several ways to overcome the distress and disturbance from unnecessary fear. Most of these techniques focus on strengthening the union between body and mind. It’s easy to move an arm or feel the ground under your feet but to associate these actions with a sense of calmness and ease reminds us that we are not actually in danger. If we were, then we should be able to point to evidence; maybe a ransacking or a bear paw print. Sometimes it is just a history of repetitive setbacks – this too can be evidence. The basic idea is to begin relying on reason and logic. If we believe in the negative outcome and replay it to ourselves, this serves only to feed the fear. In order to conquer fear we work to control two basic aspects of it; the physical reaction and the mindful process. The goal is for both to work together.

When thrust into a stressful situation it is useful to know breathing techniques that prevent or slow an amygdala hijack. One example is to inhale for four counts, hold for two, then exhale for four counts and hold for two. Repeat this a few times until you calm down. This kind of breathing activates the parasympathetic system that carries out all the restful activity in your body like slowing down heart rate and dilating blood vessels. In an amygdala hijack, all the energy is diverted towards making you feel afraid and this takes away your ability to think and reason properly. The neocortex, or the front-most part of the brain that carries out higher level thinking, becomes undersupplied with energy because the amygdala has taken over. Regulated breathing is one way to calm down.

Another way to cope with unnecessary fear is meditation. This teaches us how to respond to those thoughts that signal fear to begin with. Sometimes we learn out of habit to judge or react to every thought that passes our minds. In meditating, we watch the thoughts come and go- trusting that they will in fact pass. Becoming comfortable with this process again helps us to cope with those initial thoughts that lead to feelings of anxiety and panic. There are many apps available that can guide you through meditation. One I really like is called Headspace. During meditation, regulating the breath calms the body but also calms- not our thoughts necessarily- but our reaction to those thoughts.

A method that requires more body movement than meditation does is yoga. Much like in meditation, the goal of yoga is to accept the easy and the difficult of what we are experiencing. The regulated and conscious movement of the body becomes a way to sense the space we occupy in our surroundings. Basically it’s a way to ground ourselves. We gain strength and resilience each time we push ourselves to hold on a little longer and try a little harder but still accept where we are at in the present moment. You can join a yoga class in the community or follow along a yoga instructor on YouTube from the comfort of your home. One channel I enjoy following is Yoga With Adriene.

Healthy eating, sleeping, and exercising will also prove to be a big help. Sometimes a health concern needs to be addressed so consulting a good doctor is necessary.

While all of these methods can help, sometimes it is best to seek professional help or share thoughts with trusted friends or family. Seeking professional help should not be seen as weakness. Many people benefit from discussing their thought process with a trained individual. Understanding the physiological and psychological processing of fear is comforting because it grounds the feelings and acknowledges them as valid and real. This also makes overcoming them easier to grasp.

Even after all these methods you will realize that there is still one vital requirement for long term improvement. Your perspective on the situation has to change. One way this can be done is to change the language with which the problem is associated. Language plays a large role in how we comprehend and interact with the world. The language in our head is a direct result of associative learning over time that is influenced by our surroundings.  It is important to remember that we have the power to change our own thought patterns. A change in vocabulary can help start this process even if it feels naïve or weird in the beginning. You aren’t stressed just excited. It’s not an obstacle just a snag.  Instead of using words that make the problem seem like…well a problem; these words recognize that the situation can be dealt with. What was once an overwhelming setback is now a challenge worth conquering.

Another way to shift perspective is to divert the senses to remind yourself that you are not in danger. The sound of traffic, the ticking of a clock, the shuffling of feet, or the wind whistling outside are some sounds to focus on. Use a scented hand cream to focus on a different smell. Chew on some candy to focus on the flavor. Talking to someone around us also helps. The main goal is to reconnect with the surroundings so as to shift focus away from the concern in our minds. Usually the situation is not as threatening as we perceive it to be. This takes time. Exposing ourselves to the situation little by little will help us better tolerate discomfort.

Anxiety can be overcome with practice and a willingness to make the effort that will get us there. Depending on our unique circumstances, it can take time to feel like we are more in control of our emotions. But here’s the truth of it: there will be times when we are not in control. These moments can make us feel like we are back to square one as if the struggle was a waste. It can drag us into a pit of despair that is difficult to emerge from. But here’s the other thing: we emerge regardless when we choose to take those baby steps. And also a final thing: this whole process is a cycle of ups and downs but the difference is made because we get wiser with time. We have more experience with overcoming and so we get better at it. Our tolerance of discomfort improves. The only resolution we need to stick to is that we will keep going. Eventually we look back sometimes and see that we did.


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