Understanding Anxiety & Fear

Anxiety & fear - both a normal response but not a very pleasant feeling. It can help to gain an understanding of this in order to deal with it.

Fear is a natural and useful response to threat or danger. Anxiety is usually a bit more vague and longer lasting.

Fear is a great tool for survival. It allows us to carefully consider the possibilities and gives us an awareness of danger - without fear we'd be in more danger! I know this sounds strange, but that in-built fear system keeps us alert and lets us know when it's time to act. The subconscious survival system has an inbuilt instinct to find safety under threat... but in uncertain times such as a pandemic, none of us knows how this will play out therefore we cannot easily meet that instinctive need for safety, so we will feel more anxiety. If there is a danger that is very evident right in front of us, the natural fear response spurs us into action - physically and mentally. This is a useful response. However in times of uncertainty, where we know there is a danger, yet cannot discharge this fear response...the anxiety we feel is the result. Our ancestors probably wouldn't have felt it as a long term anxiety - the fear would have served it's purpose, they likely would not have been left with a long term free floating feeling of 'what if'.

As humans we have a natural tendency to look for the danger and any threats to our survival and safety, so we will tend to overestimate the dangers and underestimate our abilities or resources. We have an in built super scanner, keeping us alert to threat - ask yourself is your super scanner filtering out the facts among the hysteria.

Fear will affect everyone in different ways. Some people may feel tension all over or notice bodily symptoms such as digestive issues, headache, dizziness, feeling spaced out, aches and pains. 😧 Others may notice behaviour changes; feeling on high alert to everything, an increased startle response, arguing over everything and nothing, being unable to sleep or frequent waking, loss of or increased appetite, feeling irrational, overestimating danger, maybe feeling you can't focus on everyday tasks. Some people may want to reach out to others while some may withdraw completely.

The good news is all of this is completely normal and to be expected as a human. Our bodies are running on the same system as our ancient ancestors - primed to survive. Our reptilian brain and amygdala - the parts which help with this, are doing a perfect job of alerting us to danger (like the news and social media aren't already😉).

We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis without much warning - one which is a threat to our physical survival, and that of those around us. Therefore our survival brain is getting a strong message - do something, sort this out, run, fight or freeze. 🏃‍♀️👊😳

The thing is, to the part of the brain that loves to spring into action to keep us alive (and it does this around 1/3 of a second before we are aware of it), it has no recognition between a predator we can run from or fight, 🦖 and one which is all around us but pretty much out of our control. Running from it is pointless, we can't physically fight it either. Freezing will just leave us paralyzed with fear and not very productive.

The problem arises when the predator is all around us, and we are being asked to do the exact opposite of our ancient survival programming - we are being asked to sit tight.

People may tell you to calm down and that doesn't help, obviously you know it's a good idea to calm down, so why is it so hard to do? You may think it's pointless: all those calm down techniques do nothing for you, well sometimes they won't but guess what: that's perfectly normal.

I always use the example of two cave people sat outside a cave with a wild predator charging at them - the one who calms down and just sits there doing nothing is likely to be the one who perishes. The one who's system is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline and runs, fights or freezes (if this means being hidden) will likely have a better chance. So evolution doesn't favour remaining calm! Night time is no exception - the one who sleeps soundly is more at risk during a dangerous event, so our brains like to keep ensuring we remain alert to the danger throughout the night.

You may feel waves of anxiety that occasionally feel very intense, especially if it turns out to be just after a news announcement or hearing something unsettling. It doesn't mean you can't cope, it just means you are reacting in a normal way to a frightening or uncertain event, so remember not to fear the fear! It's your body preparing you to fight, flee or freeze. At the moment we can do none of those things, or if we did it wouldn't change the danger, so we feel the anxiety more strongly. You may pick up anxiety from others around you, whether that's online or in person. We have a tendency to pick up on emotion around us and get carried along with it. Ask yourself is this my feeling or someone else's? Are the things they are passing to me real, or imagined (do your fact checks). Let's not dispute this is a truly unsettling and threatening event happening around us, but let's also keep our personal risk in perspective. Ask yourself is there anything I can practically do right now, is this fear justified right now. Is it fact or someone else's story/opinion? Some people will be affected more seriously by this virus, so it's natural to be anxious if you have underlying health issues or loved ones who do. People telling you to stay calm won't help, and may even wind you up more, but that doesn't mean you can't help yourself. Practice the mind calming techniques: they may help keep your fears from getting out of control. All you can do is take every practical step to keep yourself as well as you can, and look out for your friends and family. Practical steps such as avoiding fake news, and keeping yourself informed from reliable sources will help. Also keeping yourself as physically healthy as you can, as well as having a solid plan for the future once this is all over. Claire x

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