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Negative Response To Fear

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  • December 12, 2005 /
  • by Stonebriar Counseling Associates /
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Healthcare professionals use terms like fear, anxiety, panic attack, and phobia to illum-inate the spectrum of our fears. For our purposes, we will use fear and anxietysomewhat interchangeably but with the following distinctions. Fear is an immediate and intense internal alarm system that alerts us to the presence of danger. It revs up our whole being—body, mind, and emotions—and rivets our focus on one primary goal: protection. It prepares us either to flee from or fight against the perceived danger. Anxiety is the pervasive feeling of apprehension that lingers long after the danger has subsided. This nagging feeling of dread uses a great deal of emotional energy worrying about future negative events that are both unpredictable and uncontrollable. We must remember that both short-term fear and long-termanxiety are complex, multi-layered responses to danger—whether immediate or anticipated, real or imagined. Fear can empower us for action, or paralyze us and make us more susceptible to the danger at hand. Almost 50 years ago a young physician, Hans Selye (Stress without distress. New York: Signet Books. 1974), noticed that sick people often had a series of symptoms, no matter what was wrong. He called it “the syndrome of just being sick.” It seems to be the body’s way of defend-ing itself against attack by disease or stress of any kind. Three stages are involved in what is now called the general adaptation syndrome or GAS. First, is the alarm stage: the body responds with panic–a “fight or flight” reaction. The hormones flow, the heart beats faster, we breathe harder, we sweat, our senses are more alert, we are ready for protective action–running or attacking. As we experience this defense today in the form of fear, anxiety, panic, anger, sadness, etc., we lose some of our mental alertness and organization. So a frightened speaker, being more prepared to run than talk, loses his/her train of thought or stumbles over their words. The nervous worker being watched by his/her supervisor fumbles with their tools. If the stress continues, our body enters the second stage, called resistance. Our body must stop being in a state of alarm; our body can’ttake it. So, the body attempts to adjust to the stress. We calmdown a little, but the body is still working overtime; we may become more accustomed to being stressed but our concentration and decisions continue to be poor. If the stress is long-lasting (days, weeks, and months), our resistance is further worn down and our bodies becomeexhausted in the third stage. We don’t have the energy to continue the adaptation to the stress. The body gives up–parts may have been damaged, particularly the heart, kidneys, and stomach. We may die. Commonly, psychosomatic disorders (psychologically caused physical disorders) occur: fatigue, hysteria, aches and pains, high blood pressure, skin rashes, etc. Often we have trouble getting along with others. Mentally we may experience hopelessness, exhaustion, confusion or perhaps a serious mental disorder. Fear is often accompanied by such involuntary physical symptomsas muscle tension, rapid breathing, tremors, heart palpitations, and increased pulse rate. We don’t choose these reactions. They automatically kick in when we sense that danger is close by. So, is fear merely an inherited biochemical, stimulus-response process, or is it acquired through our upbringing and personal experiences? The answer is, “Yes. It’s both.”

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