When Fear & Anxiety Become Unhealthy – Signs & Symptoms
People who struggle with anxiety, fear, and phobias often wish to eliminate or avoid the experience of any fear and uncertainty. This desire is impossible, though, since fear and uncertainty exist in life. They serve a purpose when they occur in small, manageable, and meaningful doses.
For many people, uncertainty is something that is not readily acknowledged. We accept that our decaf coffee is, in fact, decaf, although we have no certainty of it. We accept that we will arrive at our destination safely, although we have no way of being sure that will be the case.
Uncertainty is something we all accept in many things we do, although we may not even recognize it. For people who struggle with anxiety, however, accepting uncertainty is much more challenging. It is something that does not come as easily and is coupled with feelings of distress, avoidance, and overall disturbance.
Signs that fear, anxiety, or phobias are affecting your well-being:
- You avoid social situations, travel, and other activities even when you would like to engage in them
- You spend an excessive amount of time worrying—to the point where you lose sleep or can’t pay attention to what is happening around you
- You give up or never take on activities that are essential to your quality of life (e.g., stopping driving or never learning to drive)
- You find it increasingly difficult to leave home or to do anything outside of a strict routine
- You avoid certain situations, objects, or animals even though you are aware your fear of them is exaggerated
- You experience physical symptoms, such as headaches, trembling, and muscle tension
Ways To Address Unhealthy Fears
While our sympathetic nervous system engages in “fight or flight” when we feel frightened, our parasympathetic nervous system allows us to “rest and digest” by slowing the body down.
We are at our healthiest when we achieve a balance, known as “homeostasis,” between the two systems. If we feel frightened or anxious, we can engage our parasympathetic nervous system to achieve a calmer state.
Coping With Fears and Anxiety
If our fears and anxieties are creating discomfort, it can be helpful to face them. Once we face a fear and get to the other side of it, our distress is gradually lessened.
The more we engage in the fearful activity, the less frightening it becomes. When we overcome fears, we can feel a sense of mastery that allows us to take on new challenges.
Here are some ways to help manage fears and anxiety.
Exercise releases endorphins and other feel-good chemicals into your brain, reduces muscle tension through movement, and can distract you from distressing thoughts.
When we connect with friends, we can be distracted from our worries and fears, receive feedback on whether our concerns are reasonable, and receive moral support.
Mindfulness involves being present by having moment-to-moment awareness. Being mindful helps us pause to recognize the thoughts we’re having and how they are contributing to our emotions.
In the case of anxiety and phobia, when we practice mindfulness, we can better assess whether our fears are well-founded or irrational.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation involves a deliberate tensing and releasing of specific muscle groups, which relaxes the body and mind. People who practice progressive muscle relaxation become better at identifying and addressing tension in their bodies.
When we experience anxiety and stress, our breathing becomes fast and shallow, perpetuating our distress. Deep breathing, however, automatically engages the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us calm down.
If these methods are not able to fully help support a healthy level of fear and anxiety, it’s time to reach out to a health care professional for further guidance. Because phobias cause significant distress, it is especially important to consider professional help when addressing them.