Whether it’s panic about an uncertain future, separation anxiety from family members or an uneasy feeling about leaving the house without a mask, fear has many faces.
While everyone has experienced fear throughout their lives, many might wonder where certain kinds of anxiety originate and why they affect some more than others.
“Fear is a natural and biological response of all animals and humans caused by the chemicals produced by the brain’s limbic system,” said Vinod Alluri, psychiatrist at AdventHealth-Central Texas in Killeen. “It is a fight or flight mechanism for protection and survival.”
From an evolutionary perspective, fear serves a vital role in keeping you safe from potential danger. Humans and their ancestors have faced potentially lethal danger such as animals, violence and health threats through centuries.
While we live in a seemingly safer world today than our ancestors did, the preconditioned tendency for fear remains.
“Most people’s fear is based on their own experiences or their observation of the experiences of family or others that caused distress or discomfort,” Alluri said. “When we hear our family, the media or others share tragic experiences, it triggers our brain’s fear and stress response. The experience becomes generalized, so when faced with a similar situation, we expect the same thing to happen to us.”
Fearing spiders or snakes is usually based on the knowledge that some of these creatures are venomous and therefore dangerous. However, not all fear is built on factual information.
Many people fear unknown and unfamiliar situations — whether that may be strangers, their professional future or talking public.
The psychological term for fear of the unknown is xenophobia. Experts define it as the tendency to be afraid of something you have no information about.
The reason behind xenophobia is often a lack of predictability and control.
Although anyone can develop a fear of the unknown, behavioral scientists have found that patients who suffer from conditions such as anxiety, depression or alcohol and eating disorders are more susceptible.
Phobias are another kind of fear. Phobias are excessive and irrational fear reactions that cause a deep sense of panic when the source is encountered.
“Phobia is a more intense fear response specific to one thing or a generalized experience that causes significant anxiety and dysfunction in our life,” Alluri said. “We can develop phobias for multiple things. It is more common to experience phobias for things that are seen as repulsive or for situations we feel are difficult to escape or are endangering.”
The impact of a phobia can range from annoying to severely disabling. Statistics suggest that approximately 19 million Americans have a phobia that causes difficulty in some areas of their lives.
Symptoms of phobias include but are not limited to shortness of breath, elevated blood pressure, nausea, chest pain and dizziness.
Fortunately, you can tackle your fear with various treatment options.
“The best way is to develop healthy habits of regular natural brain relaxation like mindfulness, taking a walk, doing aerobic exercises like yoga, reading and listening to relaxing books or music,” Alluri said. “Mindfulness could be practiced by focusing on our own breath and consciously focusing on breathing in and out for 2-3 minutes.”
While some fears might be able to be controlled at home, some require medical attention and support.
“If fear becomes overwhelming and does not improve with natural strategies, it is important to seek professional help for psychological and cognitive therapy and sometimes medication,” Alluri said.