.The Fear We Live With: What it does to us, and how to manage it

Three years of pandemic. War in Ukraine. Mass shootings. Inflation/eviction/recession. Democracy in crisis. Honestly, there is something wrong with you if you aren’t feeling fearful. But the problem is—there’s also something wrong with you if you are, at least all of the time.

This is your body on fear: “As soon as you recognize fear, your amygdala (small organ in the middle of your brain) goes to work. It alerts your nervous system, which sets your body’s fear response into motion. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released. Your blood pressure and heart rate increase. You start breathing faster. Even your blood flow changes—blood actually flows away from your heart and into your limbs, making it easier for you to start throwing punches, or run for your life. Your body is preparing for fight-or-flight,” explains a page from Northwestern Medicine. 

Says the National Alliance on Mental Illness: “When you feel afraid, the five senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touch translate information happening in our immediate environment. For example, when we see a vicious-looking animal running toward us, hear footsteps approaching from behind, smell smoke in our house or feel unexpectedly touched on the back, the limbic system, simply known as the emotional brain, switches on the fear response.”

Not only that, but this is your brain on fear: “As some parts of your brain are revving up, others are shutting down. When the amygdala senses fear, the cerebral cortex (the area of the brain that harnesses reasoning and judgment) becomes impaired—so now it’s difficult to make good decisions or think clearly.” 

Therapists everywhere are seeing the results of this in their practices. Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York neuropsychologist and director of Comprehend the Mind, further explained the effects of long term fear and anxiety:

•Fear can weaken our immune system, causing cardiovascular damage, gastrointestinal problems such as ulcers, decreased fertility and gastrointestinal issues. It can also lead to accelerated aging and even premature death.

•The world looks scary to someone with chronic anxiety, and their memories confirm that. It’s possible that fear can impair long-term memory and damage parts of the brain, like the hippocampus, making it more difficult to regulate fear. This can leave a person with more frequent anxiety.

•Fear interrupts the brain processes that allow us to regulate our emotions, read non-verbal cues, reflect before acting, determine ethical behavior and take in any information presented to us. This can negatively impact our thinking and decision-making, leaving one susceptible to impulsive and intense actions. 

•Long term fear can also induce fatigue, clinical depression and PTSD.

Confirmed Oakland psychologist Ellis Edmunds, Psy.D., “Constant fear and anxiety can lead to obsessive rumination on ‘what might happen,’ catastrophizing, and cascading physical and psychological effects that seep into our work life and relationships.”

There are differences between fear, what might be termed “legitimate fear,” and anxiety. “When you are experiencing a legitimate fear, like dying from Covid, you may feel worried, and your anxiety levels may rise. However, you are still actively trying to avoid catching Covid, being aware of and safe in your surroundings and actions,” said Hafeez.

Fear is an “embedded, mental/emotional/physical response to some stimulus,” said Richmond psychologist and educator Nancy Arvold, Ph.D., producing the classic freeze/fight/flight reaction.

There are many legitimate fears, Ellis said, but it can be very confusing to accurately assess how dangerous some situations really are, which leads to fears that are not “in proportion” to the reality of the danger. “Our psyches have evolved to over-evaluate danger…we are wired to assume things are more dangerous than they are,” he said.

Being paralyzed by fear isn’t the result of any real, tangible danger, but instead internal worries putting you under mental and emotional distress, Hafeez explained.

Then there’s anxiety. “In my view, anxiety is more mental than fear. It’s projecting into the future,” said Edmunds. The National Alliance on Mental Illness comments, “Anxiety is a reaction to our emotions versus danger in the environment. Anxiety is a stop-reaction to the impulses that fear and other core emotions create inside the body. For example, fear mobilizes energy for movement, and anxiety pushes it back down.”

The experts agreed that some people are more susceptible to high levels of fear and anxiety. Arvold pointed to those who grow up in unstable environments. Some genetic studies have indicated that some people are predisposed to anxiety, “which changes the wiring of your brain,” said Ellis.

Hafeez concurred. “Some people may be more likely to experience higher levels of fear because of personality traits they were born with, specific genes they’ve inherited, or situations they’ve experienced,” he said.“Those with strong childhood fears or anxiety may be more likely to have one or more phobias.”

Parents, who are often placed in impossible situations, not knowing how much or how little to share their own fears with their children, need to keep this in mind.

“Fear can shape your brain and nervous system,” said Ellis. “Those who grow up with insecurity often become hyper-vigilant,” said Arvold.

“Deep breathing reduces anxiety,” said Arvold, “and meditation, including walking meditation, can also provide relief.” Also, she said, “stop doom scrolling.”

Ellis also recommended breathing, which, he said, “allows your parasympathetic nervous system to take over.” Activating this system causes heart and breathing rates to decrease, digestion to restart and all other functions to go back to their normal level. He also highly recommends mindfulness and meditation techniques.

“Slow breathing from the belly,” said Hafeez, “During times of anxiety, breathing becomes faster and shallower, ” he said. “Learning to slow time your breath can be practiced via YouTube videos during non-anxious times, to be used optimally during periods of fearfulness.”  

He noted that scientific evidence backs up the efficacy of meditation in relieving fear and anxiety. “Regular and proper mediation techniques can positively change neural pathways in the brain and lead to a calmer state of being,” he said.

So, while there is no way to avoid experiencing fear in tumultuous times, it does not have to control you. 

Try this breath technique from classic yoga practice, called “Viloma Breathing.”

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  • Take a few normal breaths to settle in.
  • Sip in a little air into your lower abdomen; hold for just a second.
  • Sip a little more into your upper rib cage, feeling the diaphragm expand outwards. Hold again for a second.
  • Last sip of air goes into the top of the chest, so you have breathed as deeply as possible. Hold for just a second.
  • Release the air in a slow exhale in the same order you took it in: lower abdomen first, upper rib cage second, upper chest last.
  • Repeat two more times.
  • It may take practice to be able to breathe separately into each area, but everyone can do it. 
  • Viloma Breath is excellent right before sleep as well. 

And sleep, as Shakespeare wrote, “knits up the raveled sleave of care.”

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