Managing anxiety: how fear works

Walking in countryside can moderate our physical fear response, calm our thinking, and give us a safe social environment. Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

Fear developed in our minds and bodies because we needed to get away from danger.  We are the descendants of millions of creatures who were able to have extreme reactions to possible negative events.  Fear has therefore evolved along with us.  If we feel fear, we need not feel guilty or ashamed.  It’s natural to be afraid from time to time.

However, we have big brains, big enough to learn about our own fear, and to develop ways to moderate it.  Our natural responses can be influenced by the training we choose to undertake.  Fear can often be reduced to manageable levels  with a few simple techniques, applied over time.

Below is a brief explanation of the human fear system.  For more information, see this link.

A PHYSICAL RESPONSE

When we become afraid, a set of physical responses start to happen.  We have an almond-shaped region of our brain called the amygdala, which can be activated by threat-related stimuli, such as the sight of a predator.  When activated, it releases stress hormones.  Our brain and body become alert, ready for action. Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing increase.

THE ROLE OF THINKING

Fear is moderates by our thoughts.  Our amygdala is connected, via our hippocampus, to our memory system, which helps us to put things into context, and can adjust the level of felt threat.  For instance, if we see a man running towards us with a gun in a film, we are less afraid than if we see a man running towards us with a gun in real life.  We are constantly interpreting life, putting it through the filter of our moderating thoughts.

SOCIAL CUES

We also copy each other in our reactions.  In the recent COVID pandemic, for example, many people noticed themselves becoming excessively fearful.  Signs, warnings and news items sent out social signals that being fearful was appropriate, and many of us obliged with the asked-for emotion.  This is the same social response that makes herds of animals all run away at once. Equally, calming social cues also work: when in a peaceful, regulated social environment, we pick up the vibes and and feel safer.

ANXIETY: A BLEND OF PHYSICAL, THINKING AND SOCIAL INFLUENCES

Anxiety is fear by another name, and draws on our physical response, our thinking response, and social cues, in a feedback loop.  For instance, in the morning we may wake up  and experience a rise in our heart rate.  We may interpret this as a sense of threat, and go looking for memories and contexts which back this up.  If we then turn on the news, and hear journalists giving us social messages telling us what is going wrong in the world, this can also reinforce our state, and we can fall into a fearful start to the day.

MANAGING FEAR AND ANXIETY

Once we are aware of our physical responses, our thinking responses, and social cues, then we can start to manage ourselves and our environment. Here are some examples:

  • Physical responses can be managed through avoiding caffeine, practicing meditation, practicing yoga, and keeping up an exercise routine.  We can calm our physical bodies by giving ourselves focused, one-track tasks to do. For those who like contact, hugging and sitting together are excellent calming influences.
  • Thinking responses can be managed through affirmations, making our home a safe environment, safe conversation and psychotherapy, reading, watching TV, and, again, meditation. We can also explore philosophies which offer helpful ways of thinking to reduce fear.
  • Social cues can be managed by avoiding loud and aggressive environments, and taking time to be in low-threat social situations, either alone (e.g. walking in countryside), or in company (e.g. in spiritually-focused community, with safe friends, or anywhere with a group culture of gentleness and respect).

Many of the things we can do to control fear are a matter of lifestyle.  In particular, we can try to make sure we spend time:

  • in focused activity
  • in a safe environment

Just those two things are a great start.  We can ask ourselves two questions:

  • is there a predictable, focused activity I can be doing?
  • is there a safe environment I can do it in?

If we find ourselves drifting into uncertainty, we can make life more certain through planning and control.  If we find our attention being split or wandering, we can make ourselves more focused through withdrawing from busy-ness, and giving ourselves simple, single, sequential tasks.  And if we find things unsafe, we can seek out safe places.

We can remember that our body, our thoughts, and our social environment, whilst not entirely under our control, can definitely be influenced by us. We can make good choices which lead us to a more peaceful state, free of excessive fear.