Fear is described as an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat. It is also the act of being afraid of someone or something as likely to be dangerous, painful, or threatening. Fear is a basic survival mechanism that signals the body to respond with a “fight or flight” response. It is a crucial element of our overall safety. But when a person lives in constant, chronic fear, continually in the fight or flight response, it can lead to a number of issues including fear and anxiety disorders. But how else does fear affect both our physical and mental health?
How Fear Works
The emotion of fear preps us to react to potential danger by telling our bodies to release hormones. There is an increase in particular of hormones that flow to an area of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain helps us focus on the present danger and helps us remember this situation as a means to overcome the same threats in the future. These hormones either:
- Slow or shut down functions not needed for survival (such as our digestive system)
- Sharpen functions that might help us survive (such as eyesight). Our heart rate increases and blood flows to muscles so we can run faster.
The Three Stages of Fear Response
It has been found that there are three predictable stages that the body uses to respond to the stressor. This is called the general adaption syndrome and are as follows:
- Alarm: The first reaction to stress recognizes there’s a danger and prepares to deal with the threat. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the autonomic nervous system are activated. Primary stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and non-adrenaline are released
- Resistance: Homeostasis begins restoring balance and a period of recovery for repair and renewal takes place. Stress hormones may return to normal, but there may be reduced defenses and adaptive energy left.
- Exhaustion: At this phase, the stress has continued for some time. The body’s ability to resist is lost because its adaption energy supply is gone. This is often referred to as overload, burnout, adrenal fatigue, maladaptation, or dysfunction.
The Impacts of Chronic Fear
There are a number of potential consequences of fear on our physical, mental, and emotional health.
Fear actually weakens our immune system and can cause serious cardiovascular damage. Chronic fear can also cause gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. It can decrease fertility, accelerate aging, and even cause premature death. Other potential effects include:
- Headaches that turn into migraines
- Muscles aches that turn into fibromyalgia
- Body aches that turn into chronic pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Dysfunction of systems including endocrine and immune
In regard to mental health, fear can impair a lot of mental functioning. Fear can damage the formation of long-term memory and hurt certain parts of the brain. In turn, continual fear can make it even more difficult to regulate fear, leaving lingering feelings of anxiety. Speaking of regulating emotions, chronic fear interrupts the process that allows our brains to regulate other emotions and read non-verbal cues. Chronic fear can impact our critical thinking and decision making in negative and impulsive ways. Other potential effects include:
- Issues with sleep and waking cycles
- Mental fatigue and fog
- Clinical depression
- Anxiety disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive thoughts
- Hinderance in the ability to learn
- Changes to the autonomic nervous system
- Eating disorders
Chronic fear can even mess with our emotional wellbeing as it is highly personalized. Each of us has different fears for different reasons. Fear actually involves some of the same chemical reactions that positive emotions like happiness and excitement do. Which is why in certain circumstances, like watching scary movies or going to a haunted house can be seen as fun. But when fear is both chronic and seen as negative, it can lead to a number of emotional issues such as:
- Dissociation from self
- Unable to have loving feelings
- Learned helplessness
- Mood swings
Managing Fear with CPA
Life is going to continually throw us obstacles. What matters most is not what comes our way, but how we cope with it. The next time a challenge comes your way, reflect on this information and recognize if you are facing issues associated with chronic fear. We know you need a toolbox full of skills in order to cope with the challenges that life throws at us. At CPA, we will always encourage patients to explore coping mechanisms that work best for them. However, we also know that a number of those skills come from counseling and different methods of therapy.
Cristina Panaccione and Associates has two locations in the South Hills and one office in Robinson Township. We are currently accepting a limited number of new patients, so check out our videos to learn more about how we can help teach you the skills to cope with fear.
Amber Kottner – LPC
Amber Kottner is a Licensed Professional Counselor and earned my Master of Arts degree in counseling from Waynesburg University. She has over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She enjoys working with families, children, and adults. Amber strives to make the therapeutic process as easy as possible by creating an open and supportive environment.
Amber enjoys helping others and strives to assist you in your journey. She believes that each individual is authentic and deserves an approach that best fits them. Therefore, she enjoys working from eclectic approaches, including an emphasis on cognitive-behavioral techniques, person-centered therapy, and solution-focused goals.
Therapy is a special partnership. Amber is here to help make an improvement in your life. You decide what you want to work on, and together, we will work to get you there in the best and most fitting way possible.