How fear changes us and what to do about it

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The level of uncertainty and fear that we all experienced in the past twelve months was and is unprecedented. Never before in human history, our core human needs to connect, be part of the group, and be around others were this risky.

This post will examine the effects of fear on our behavior and actions we can take today to manage the impact.

Definitions

I propose we start with understanding this emotion. According to the University of Minnesota website dedicated to mental health: “ Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. As such, it is an essential part of keeping us safe”.

Next, lets talk about what exactly happens in our bodies when we get scared? Let`s say I am afraid of dogs. Each time when I encounter a large puppy on a hiking trail, in on a sidewalk, or in other public places, I experience the following:

  • I stop breathing, I pause and wait to see what will happen next
  • My palms get sweaty and my stomach starts turning
  • My motions slow down and I become acutely aware of an animal`s presence
  • I tense up and prepare to dash/defend myself

At a very basic level, fear is a stressor to the body`s systems and it is a normal response to real or perceived danger. This is where things get dicey. The human brain can imagine certain situations and rank them as dangerous. When this happens, our body responds to images and thoughts as a real physical threat. While being attacked by a dog is scary, thinking about a dog can produce the same response as being attacked by one.

Now, lets talk about our reactions to fear and how it affects our lives.

We play it safe and stay away from new experiences

When we are frightened, we tend to stay close to the base and seek the comfort of known, predictable, and certain. We shop in the same grocery store, make the same dishes for dinner, and do our best to avoid risky situations, such as social interactions. When withdraw from the world, we wall ourselves out from many opportunities. We literally stop learning, growing, and connecting. The behavior can lead to self-isolation and depression since we are wired to set goals and overcome challenges. When we put our life on pause, we lose confidence in our abilities and our life becomes dull.

We become hypersensitive and reactive

The effects of fear on the body and mind are similar to those of any acute stress. While some occasional discomfort can make us more resilient, the long-term chronic fear can make as jumpy, reactive, and defensive. Our overstimulated brain continues to signal danger when apparently there is none. Our brain may perceive many events as highly negative and react accordingly, driving the amygdala (prehistoric part of our brain, that supports instincts) to continue releasing stress hormones. As we continue fleeting, freezing, or attacking our friends, colleagues, and neighbors the world will shrink. Reactivity may worsen the ill affects of fear and anxiety on our primary relationships, work, and health.

Lastly, lets talk about what to do, if you are really afraid, stuck in the house, and convinced that living is dangerous and you have to “wait it out”.

Start moving outdoors today

When you are riddled by fear and anxiety, the worst thing you can do is to stay home and be still. Our bodies are wired to move during stress. So start small, experiment with something easy, like going for a quick jog around your neighborhood. Perhaps, you take 15 min quick stroll outside, get some sunlight, breath, move your body. You will feel an immediate change to your state. Endorphins will flood your body, your muscle tension will subside, and your entire body will soften. Walking is underrated and truly can be a first step to claim your life back.

Set small goals daily

Set simple, manageable goals, and accomplish them. When our mind is focused on a project, challenge, or a goal our we tend to worry less. Start your day with setting 2-3 simple goals. For example: call your friend, drop off Amazon return, and stop by a grocery store. Focus drives motivation, and our accomplishments validate our ability to handle life situations with poise. Avoid having too much free time on your hands; this is where our mind starts wondering without an aim, and our negative or fearful self-talk surfaces.

Practice mindfulness

We do not need to spend hours in meditation, but practicing self-reflection, breathing, and gratitude may do wonders for your mood. Pick one thing that you want to do each day, add it to your work calendar as a reminder, and when the time comes, do it. At first, your mind will guilt you into skipping the scheduled appointment, but if you insist, the new 15-minute power nap or 20-minute body scan meditation will start becoming your new and powerful habit.

The key to overcoming the damaging effects of fear is recognizing it early on and taking actions to deal with your feeling by accepting them and helping your body to move through the experience.

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