Living under constant fear and anxiety has serious health consequences.
It might seem like a natural thing, but fear weakens our immune system and seriously impacts the brain’s ability to respond effectively. Let’s look at the damaging effects of fear on the body and brain—and what you can do about it.
Fear is a natural response to a perceived threat. It can help us be prepared to respond to dangerous situations. The three main responses we have to a threat are:
Flight, fight and freeze.
Flight is exactly as it sounds. We want to run out and survive. This was appropriate as a historical response, say running from a tiger.
Fight is also just as it seems. We want to fight to survive. This is a primal response to fight for our lives or the lives of our children.
Freeze is a natural response to a threat. We freeze in place, much like a rabbit freezes—hoping that they will not be seen, found or eaten by a predator.
The problem comes when these natural responses become conditioned. In other words, our body and minds are chronically reacting to situations, people, news and circumstances as if we are living in the jungle rather than in modern civilization.
Fear weakens the immune system and this can cause devastating impact. Some of the specific problems include heart damage, accelerated aging and even premature death. Gastrointestinal damage can range from upset stomachs to ulcers to irritable bowel syndrome.
There really isn’t a dividing line between our mental/emotional state and the state of our physical health—except in our minds. Our bodies don’t recognize the distinction. If you’re living in a state of constant fear, the body pays for it.
Fear can cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even harder to regulate fear. It can result in feeling anxious much of the time. For people living in chronic fear, the world appears scary. The memories support this view.
Fear can interfere with our brains ability to regulate emotions or accurate process information. It can interrupt our ability to read non-verbal cues, pause to reflect or make ethical decisions.
Fear can render us unable to respond effectively or act appropriately. Our thinking and decision-making may be susceptible to pushes of intense emotions or impulsive urges and reactions.
Long-term fear can be a factor in fatigue, clinical depression and anxiety.
Experts advise that one of the first lines of defense is learning to distinguish threats. Some are life threatening. Others are situations, which are less serious. When we find ourselves feeling threatened, experts explain that it is helpful to have a plan.
Many people respond to fear by trying to get rid of it. We humans are a creative bunch. We do things like deny it, ignore it, blame someone or something, distract ourselves…eat, drink, play games. The only thing is—ask yourself, are your efforts to get rid of fear working?
Most likely you’ll agree: trying to get rid of fear doesn’t really work.
The key is to free ourselves from the control of fear. This takes practice, familiarity and some more practice.
Three Tips to deal with difficult situations are:
Breathing. Noticing what you see, hear, touch and taste can help. Ground yourself with simple habits such as stretching, taking deep breaths and feeling your feet on the ground.
Don’t waste time thinking about the future or dwelling on the past. Ditch the habit of focusing on ‘why me?’ or ‘why’ questions in general. Focus on the present.
What do you need to do next? This will help you stay firmly rooted in the present and in action. When you’re taking action, it’s easier to stay clear of thinking about the worst possible outcomes, also known as catastrophizing.
There are many ways to become more knowledgeable about the effects of fear. And you can learn to cope with and combat fear.
The #1 thing: face your fears. Don’t try to avoid what you fear. And remember, you are not alone. If you need or want help with facing your fears, talk to a counselor, coach or therapist. Explore resources for chronic fear. You can learn practical skills to boost resilience and live a healthy life.