Understanding emotions- Fear and Anxiety

What are fear and anxiety?

Emotions can be small and subtle, or large and powerful. Fear and anxiety are two of the most powerful emotions. They can have a huge effect on our mind and body, and often act as dangers signals – letting us know that something, or someone, is a threat to us or the people we love. The source of these feelings could be a dangerous person, animal, situation, or disease.

If the danger is immediately present, we call our response to it fear; if the danger is potential, or in the future, we call it anxiety. Emotion, at its core, is an adaptive system that has evolved to help us survive and flourish. Emotions are connected to our most essential needs, for example fear and anxiety can help us to achieve our need for safety when we are in a dangerous situation.

If we listen to the signals, and pay attention to them, fear and anxiety can resolve in a short time. However, if we don’t deal with them appropriately, they can persist for much longer – even after the danger has passed.

Common thoughts which can occur when we overestimate or exaggerate a threat (or underestimate and minimise our ability to cope) might sound like:

· I'm in danger right now

· The worst possible scenario is going to happen

· I won't be able to cope with it

As a result of these thoughts, we may then begin to avoid certain people or places.

How to deal with fear and anxiety?

1. Identify your triggers

Are there times or places which are most likely to cause fear or anxiety? Noticing these patterns can be the first step to taking action and approaching situations differently. Think about times when you have felt fear or anxiety, and consider whether they had any of the following in common:

· The location

· The people who were present (or absent)

· The sights and sounds surrounding you

· Whether you had been in a similar situation before

· Whether you had been worrying about the situation in advance

· Whether you felt trapped in the situation

2. Try doing things differently

If you have identified certain situations as being likely to trigger fear or anxiety (such as being somewhere crowded or having to give a presentation) think about how you could do things differently next time. Avoiding these situations may feel helpful in the short-term, but can lead to the level of fear or anxiety building over time.

The next time you are faced with a fear or anxiety-provoking situation, try to make a plan in advance of how you will deal with it. This could include learning some breathing techniques, or practicing positive self-talk to coach yourself through it. Try to challenge any unhelpful thought patterns and remind yourself that these difficult feelings cannot hurt you, and that they will pass.

How can I help myself?

· Take time out: it's impossible to think clearly when you're flooded with fear or anxiety, so the first thing to do is take some time to physically calm down. Try to distract yourself from the source of your worry for 15 minutes by going for a walk, cycling, or doing some gardening or housework.

· Breathing exercise: to help calm yourself, breathe in through your nose for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds and then breathe out through the mouth for 3 seconds. You will get the most benefit if you do this exercise regularly, as part of your daily routine.

· Face your fears: avoiding fears only makes them stronger. If you always avoid situations that scare you, you might stop doing the things that you want or need to achieve. You will also miss out on the chance to see whether the situation was really as bad as you thought. Face your fears and ask yourself “what is the worst thing that could happen?”. Then try to challenge this thinking – how likely is it that the worst-case scenario will actually occur? What is the evidence that things will go badly? Sometimes we assume the worst, when the reality is really not that bad.

· Remember no one is perfect: learn to accept that life is full of ups and downs, and that we all feel fear and anxiety at times. This is perfectly normal and is just part of being human.

· Connect with yourself: try to learn more about your fears and anxieties. By understanding our emotions better, including their triggers, we are better able to work on ways of coping with them. Keep a fear and anxiety journal to note down when these feelings arise, and how you react to them.

· Talk about it: sharing fears or anxious thoughts can make them quieter and less scary. If you cannot talk to a partner, friend, or family member, you could call a helpline such as Samaritans on 116 123.

· Self-care: it sounds simple, but it is really important. Take care of yourself by eating healthily, sleeping well, and getting exercise… and acknowledge to yourself that you are doing a great job.

Traps to avoid:

· do not try to do everything at once – set small targets that you can easily achieve

· do not focus on the things you cannot change – focus your time and energy into helping yourself feel better

· do not avoid situations that make you anxious – try slowly building up time spent in worrying situations to gradually reduce anxiety

· try not to tell yourself that you're alone; most people experience anxiety or fear at some point in their life

· try not to use alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, or drugs to relieve anxiety as these can all contribute to poor mental health

If things are getting difficult for you, talking therapies are very effective for people with fear and anxiety problems. You are not alone.

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