“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”
—Arthur Somers Roche
What is fear?
Fear is a powerful emotion and a natural response to a threat either perceived or real. This emotion can have a strong effect on your mind and body.
Fear can create strong signals of response when we’re in emergencies, say in a fire outbreak or in the face of an attack. Fear is also present in non-dangerous circumstances like exams or public speaking.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety describes fears that have to do with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future rather than right now.
Both fear and anxiety can last for a short or long time. In some cases, they can take over your life and affect your ability to eat, sleep, perform daily tasks, work etc. This consequently holds you back from doing and being things, and can also affect your health. This can make you overwhelmed and want to avoid situations that might make you frightened or anxious. It can be hard to break this cycle, but there are lots of ways to do it. You can learn to feel less fearful and to cope with fear so that it doesn’t stop you from living.
What makes you afraid?
Many things make us afraid. What you’re afraid of and how you act when you’re afraid varies from person to person. For some, it’s a fear of spiders. For some, it’s a fear of failure. The first step to dealing with fear is knowing what makes you afraid.
Fear may be a one-off feeling when you are faced with something unfamiliar. But it can also be an everyday, long-lasting problem – even if you can’t put your finger on why. Some people feel a constant sense of anxiety all the time, without any particular trigger. There are plenty of triggers for fear in everyday life, and you can’t always work out exactly why you are frightened or how likely you are to be harmed. Even if you can see how out of proportion a fear is, the emotional part of your brain keeps sending danger signals to your body.
What makes you anxious?
Anxiety is a type of fear and for this reason, what applies to fear from above is also true for anxiety. How you feel when you’re frightened and anxious are very similar as the basic emotion is the same. Anxiety is a word mostly used to describe worry, or nagging and persistent fear. It is used when the fear is about something in the future rather than what is happening right now.
What do fear and anxiety feel like?
When you feel frightened or seriously anxious, your mind and body work very quickly. The following things might happen:
• Irregular or quick heartbeats
• Fast breath
• Muscle weakness
• Churning stomach or loose bowels
• Difficulty concentrating
• Low appetite
• Hot and cold sweats
• Dry mouth
• Tense muscles
These things occur because your body, sensing fear, is preparing you for an emergency, so it makes your blood flow to the muscles, increases blood sugar, and gives you the mental ability to focus on the thing that your body perceives as a threat. With anxiety, in the longer term, you may have some of the above symptoms as well as a more nagging sense of fear, and you may get irritable, have trouble sleeping, develop headaches, or have trouble getting on with work and planning for the future; you might have problems having sex and might lose self-confidence.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is when you feel overwhelmed by physical and mental feelings of fear. People who have panic attacks say that they find it hard to breathe, and they may worry that they’re having a heart attack or are going to lose control of their bodies.
What is a phobia?
A phobia is an extreme fear of a particular animal, thing, place or situation. People with phobias have an overwhelming need to avoid any contact with the specific cause of the anxiety or fear. The thought of coming into contact with the cause of the phobia makes you anxious or panicky.
How do I know if I need help?
Fear and anxiety affect us now and then. It is only when it is severe and long-lasting that doctors classify it as a mental health problem. If you feel anxious all the time for several weeks, or if it feels like your fears are taking over your life, then it’s a good idea to seek help. The same is true if a phobia is causing problems in your daily life, or if you are experiencing panic attacks.
How can I help myself?
1. Face your fear
If you always avoid situations that scare you, you might stop doing things you want or need to do. You won’t be able to test out whether the situation is always as bad as you expect, so you miss the chance to work out how to manage your fears and reduce your anxiety. Anxiety problems tend to increase if you get into this pattern. Exposing yourself to your fears can be an effective way of overcoming this anxiety.
2. Know yourself
Try to learn more about your fear or anxiety. Keep an anxiety diary or thought record to note down when it happens and what happens. You can try setting yourself small, achievable goals for facing your fears. You could carry with you a list of things that help at times when you are likely to become frightened or anxious. This can be an effective way of addressing the underlying beliefs that are behind your anxiety.
Increase the amount of exercise you do. Exercise requires some concentration, and this can take your mind off your fear and anxiety.
Learning relaxation techniques can help you with the mental and physical feelings of fear. It can help just to drop your shoulders and breathe deeply. Or imagine yourself in a relaxing place. You could also try learning things like yoga, meditation, massage, or listen to the Mental Health Foundation’s wellbeing podcasts at: www.mentalhealth.org.uk/help/podcasts.
5. Healthy eating
Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and try to avoid too much sugar. Resulting dips in your blood sugar can give you anxious feelings. Try to avoid drinking too much tea and coffee, as caffeine can increase anxiety levels.
6. Avoid alcohol, or drink in moderation
It’s very common for people to drink when they feel nervous. Some people call alcohol ‘Dutch courage’, but the after-effects of alcohol can make you feel even more afraid or anxious.
7. Complementary therapies
Some people find that complementary therapies or exercises, such as relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, or t’ai chi, help them to deal with their anxiety.
If you are religious or spiritual, this can give you a way of feeling connected to something bigger than yourself. Faith can provide a way of coping with everyday stress, and attending church and other faith groups can connect you with a valuable support network.
How do I get help?
1. Talking therapies
Talking therapies, like counselling or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, are very effective for people with anxiety problems, including Computerised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which takes you through a series of self-help exercises on screen. Visit your GP to find out more.
Drug treatments are used to provide short-term help, rather than looking at the root of the anxiety problems. Drugs may be most useful when they are combined with other treatments or support.
3. Support groups
You can learn a lot about managing anxiety from asking other people who have experienced it. Local support groups or self-help groups bring together people with similar experiences so that they can hear each other’s stories, share tips and encourage each other to try out new ways to manage themselves.
(This work is an excerpt and was originally published in an informative booklet by the Mental Health Foundation)