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Health and Wellbeing

08 Aug 2018

How to break the cycle of fear

Fear can be uncomfortable and crippling. But eliminating it would be like shutting down your home alarm system because it sometimes makes strange noises.

Fear is healthy and useful and helps us stay alive. But when it starts to affect your daily functioning or becomes debilitating, we need to look at ways to understand and reduce our fear response so that it does not begin to control our lives.

Fear is healthy

Fear is a powerful and primitive human emotion that alerts us to the presence of danger. Feeling fear is thus neither abnormal nor a sign of weakness. In fact, a lack of fear may be a sign of neurological issues.

Fear can actually be divided into two stages, biochemical and emotional. The biochemical response is felt by all people to some degree, while the emotional response is highly individualised based on your nature, nurture and temperament.

Biochemical reaction

When we are confronted by a threat or perceived threat, our bodies respond in specific ways. The physical reactions we experience include sweating, increased heart rate, fast breathing and high adrenaline levels running through your brain and body.

This physical response is to prepare you for “fight or flight”, in which the body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away.

Think back to the last time you heard an extraordinarily loud “bang” for example. You would have experienced some if not all of the above symptoms in preparation to either face the threat or run, you went into “survival mode”.

Emotional response

Your emotional response to fear is highly personalised depending on your temperament, what your experiences have been and how you perceive non-threatening and threatening stimuli.

Some individuals thrive on fear-inducing situations, while others avoid them at all costs. Although the physical reactions (described above) are the same, the fear is perceived very differently from person to person.

Breaking the cycle

What I write next may be controversial, but as a clinical psychologist who has supported hundreds of clients experiencing severe and debilitating fears, I want to say this: emotionally, you have the choice of perceiving the feared stimulus as a threat or not and, as such, you have the power to do something to significantly minimise or completely eliminate the fear that holds you back.

I know it can be overwhelming, scary and (ironically) fear-inducing to face your fears, but once you are willing to trust your ability to overcome them, that is the time to look fear in the eyes.

Closing your eyes will often only make the fear grow – sometimes to proportions bigger then it was when it started!

I have seen people overcome fear time and time again and here is how to start:

Start with understanding that our brain cannot distinguish between a real threat or a perceived threat and our mind can trigger a threat in the absence of one.

Read that sentence again. Google it, get to know how the mind works, talk about it to a friend or a psychologist, understand this concept.

Then, start noticing the inner conversation that surfaces when you begin to experience fear. Just notice when the conversation starts happening in your head and what it’s “about”. Once we have noticed the inner conversation and fearful self-talk, acknowledge it at an emotional level (that it is your emotions reacting to a real or perceived threat).

Reassess the way you feel by asking yourself what’s the story behind your fear (you might need a psychologist to help you get there).

Now that you have separated the story from the fear, you have the power to move forward. Doing the above-mentioned steps under the guidance of a registered psychologist is highly recommended.

Essentially what you are doing is taking control of the fear, by identifying the “danger” in what you perceive as a threatening stimuli and then responding accordingly.

What you are doing is beginning to exercise and condition your mind and body to assess the situation differently. Through this assessment, you will be able to redefine the feeling of fear and create an opportunity to move forward despite the physical feeling.

Do you have a question for Rajna, or want her to write an article on a particular topic? Feel free to email her on: 

Rajna Bogdanovic

Clinic Psychologist

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