Fear is a natural and common emotion that we all experience, just as we do happiness, sadness, anger and other emotions. However, it can also be a symptom of mental illnesses, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and anxiety-oriented disorders like social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias. We can develop fear towards a real threat or an imagined (unreal) threat. For example, a real threat is that Covid-19 can be fatal, as we are witnessing, whereas an imagined threat is being fearful towards something that doesn’t pose a danger, such as fear of public speaking. Although there is a possibility to mess up the speech because of the nerves, there is no imminent danger in that.
The purpose of fear is basically to alert us of imminent danger - whether that danger is in a physical or emotional form. When danger occurs, we respond from a physical and/or emotional place to protect ourselves. The physical response to fear is the “fight, flee, freeze” response, which is the natural way for the body to respond to danger. Our bodies automatically fend off danger, or we run away if we don’t freeze. On the contrary, an emotional response to fear varies from person to person because of our psychological make-up. For some people, watching scary movies is exciting because of the adrenaline rush and the pleasure they derive from it, whereas for others, scary movies are avoided at all cost because of the fear it invokes.
Currently, many of us are preoccupied with the fear of either being infected or losing our lives and those close to us because of the surge in numbers of the ongoing pandemic. As much as the fear of infection or death is real, it’s important to note that death is a natural process of life and is inevitable, despite the fact that many of us avoid talking about the subject. Understandably so, because death is a painful and sad process which carries severe sorrow for those who are left behind, but perhaps also for those who have realised that their lives are coming to an end, as there is permanence in death. As people experience fear, it’s crucial not to completely yield to fear because fear can have a crippling effect on our psychological well-being. Fear can weaken our immune systems, cause heart complications, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome, and reduce our chances of fertility.
When we operate from fear, we lose ourselves, and it can take us from a place of positivity and hopefulness to that of despair and hopelessness, which in turn could lead to premature physical death as our physical and emotional states are interconnected - what we think, we feel, we behave.
Common physiological and psychological symptoms of fear:
• Chest pains, sweating, rapid heartbeat, nausea, dry mouth, shortness of breath, trembling, upset stomach and chills.
How to cope with fear:
• Take care of your health – eat well, get enough rest and exercise regularly.
• Practice mindfulness – replace unpleasant thoughts with helpful thoughts, although it’s challenging
• Use stress management techniques – breathing and relaxation exercises, meditation, prayer, spirituality.
• Get a social support system – find people who you can talk to openly, and who could help you to manage your fears.
• Take control of your life – redirect your focus on things that are going well in your life, and explore new avenues.
• Embrace the ending of life – trying to learn to accept death as a normal journey of life and preparing for it despite the sorrow it brings may ameliorate some of the fears around it.
“Don’t give in to your fears. If you do, you won’t be able to talk to your heart”.