Fear is a natural human emotion that everyone experiences throughout their lives. What matters most is how you fight your fear and whether you let it affect your life.
You might not call your feeling "fear." You might call it stress, worry, or panic, but often, when we use these words, we’re talking about the same emotion.
When you feel fear, you may experience three symptoms:
- Unhelpful thoughts, such as thinking that everyone in the room thinks critically of you or that something bad will happen.
- Physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, and increased blood pressure (the body's "fight or flight" response).
- Changes in your behavior, from simple things like avoiding fun activities to more serious issues like being afraid of leaving the house.
The good news is that there are many ways to help you manage your fear. There are many places to go for assistance. Let’s start by exploring the difference between healthy and unhealthy fears.
The Difference Between Healthy Fears and Unhealthy Fears
Fear is programmed into your nervous system and functions instinctively from the time you are a baby. It gives you the survival instinct you need to keep yourself safe when you feel like you're in danger.
Some fear is healthy. If you see a venomous snake in your backyard and your fear prompts you to run back inside and close the door, that's a healthy fear. Feelings of fear are natural and help keep you safe.
But other worries are unhealthy and unnecessary. Sometimes, your fear can make you more cautious than you really need to be. For example, fear of meeting new people. It can be intimidating, but meeting new people doesn't pose any real threat to your safety. This fear is unhealthy because it prevents you from doing things you might enjoy.
Fear, anxiety or phobia?
Feelings of fear, worry, or stress can be upsetting, but they usually go away when the source of the stress is removed. Here, you don't need much help fighting your fears because they don't last long.
Anxiety is a more serious condition. It's common to feel anxious in high-pressure situations; for example, before giving a speech or taking an exam. You may also experience anxiety after a stressful event, such as an accident.
Anxiety disorders are different because those anxious feelings persist even if there is no obvious cause.
If you experience severe or recurring anxiety, or if it affects your daily life, you can talk to your GP. You may have an anxiety disorder. Many people suffer from anxiety disorders for years before seeking help, but if you've been feeling this way for a month or longer, your GP can discuss various treatment options with you.
A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or situation. When someone with a phobia is exposed to that particular object or situation, and sometimes just thinking about it, they feel intense anxiety.
Common phobias include:
- leaving familiar surroundings
- enclosed space
- spiders and other animals
Manage your fears, anxieties and phobias
There are many ways you can try to combat your fear. If you have mild symptoms, your GP may recommend that you try lifestyle changes first. Simple changes, like exercising regularly, can reduce your stress levels. The same goes for eating healthily, getting enough sleep, and reducing or avoiding stimulants like caffeine and alcohol.
If your symptoms are more severe, your GP may recommend that you see a therapist for treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a type of psychotherapy that helps you change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that cause anxiety.
CBT involves working with a therapist to look at patterns in your thinking (cognition) and behavior (behavior) that make you more likely to develop anxiety problems or prevent you from improving once you feel anxious.
When you recognize these patterns, you can make changes that replace unhelpful patterns with new ones that can help reduce your anxiety and help you cope. CBT is a common treatment for anxiety disorders.
Strategies you can use with your therapist as part of CBT include:
Solve the problem
- Exposure therapy (learning to overcome a fear of something by understanding it and gradually being exposed to it in a safe environment)
- Cognitive restructuring (learning to identify your negative thoughts, counter them, and come up with more helpful ways to respond to situations)
- Mindfulness (focusing on the present moment - acknowledging and accepting your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations in your body without labeling them as good or bad)
- Electronic therapy (also called online therapy or computer-assisted psychotherapy) can be an effective option for people with mild to moderate anxiety disorders. Most electronic therapies follow the same principles as CBT or behavioral therapy. They teach you how to identify and change patterns of thinking and behavior that cause anxiety or prevent you from overcoming it.
You can complete an electronic treatment plan on your own, although many programs offer some kind of support via phone, email, text message, or instant message. Electrotherapy is easily available and can be done at home. And you don’t have to see a doctor first.
You can also use exposure therapy to learn to fight your fear by giving yourself the opportunity to become aware of and gradually get used to what you're afraid of.
Some people find it helpful to create a fear ladder—identify your fear, set a goal, and then set incremental steps to achieve your goal. For example, if you're afraid of flying, your fear ladder might look like this:
- Look at pictures of airplanes.
- Watch videos of airplanes.
- Visit the airport with your partner or friends.
- Proceed to the airport on your own.
- Sit in the airplane simulator with your partner or friends.
- Sit yourself in an airplane simulator.
- Take a simulated airplane trip with your partner or friends.
- Take a simulated airplane trip alone.
- Take a short flight with your partner or a friend.
- Take a short-haul flight on your own.
No matter what fear, anxiety or phobia you have, there is always help. Your GP can help you start developing a treatment plan to combat your fears.
Where to get help
- your GP