Everybody feels fear – it’s one of the most primitive and essential emotions. Without it the human race simply wouldn’t survive. But what happens when it develops into an anxiety disorder? And how can we learn to grow from the experience?
A feeling of distress, apprehension, or alarm caused by an impending danger, pain’ is the dictionary description of ‘fear’. It’s something we all recognise and experience. For some people, however, this reaction can be triggered by what others regard as innocuous situations and in relatively safe environments. The fear has become an anxiety disorder and for those living with it, it can be hell. Despite all the emotional pain and distress extreme anxiety sufferers can feel, however, they can also gain a better, more informed outlook and make the most of it. Friedrich Nietzsche’s dictum: ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’ is true in the sense that one can benefit from a renewed appreciation for life following a traumatic event or major personal crisis. Similarly, living with an anxiety disorder can lead to positive changes and enhanced personal development, and if we look at the situation from a different angle, people are given an (admittedly unfortunate) opportunity to grow as they can turn this negative experience into a positive one.
It all began out of nowhere…
Imagine you are out with friends and they all decide to go to a lively venue. You can’t explain why, but you are reluctant to follow. Then starts this uncomfortable feeling, an unknown fear, which grows as you are approaching the crowded place. Once inside, the noise and the lighting are progressively overwhelming. You start to sweat, feel nauseous, a tremor creeping up on you, and you desperately want – need – to get out. That’s what happened to me as I was literally running away from that ‘scary’ place, experiencing my first panic attack over 10 years ago. Many similar incidents followed for no reason. As I thought. But if we actually understand how the brain processes fear and its origin, we can manage it, recover and get on with our lives.
Understand your fear
The brain is an incredible and complex organ: fear is a chain reaction that begins with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol that cause physical symptoms including a racing heart, shortness of breath and chest tightness among others. How many people have been to A&E over the years having mistaken a panic attack for a cardiac arrest? Also known as the fight-or-flight response, this physiological reaction was invaluable when our prehistoric ancestors were chasing a mammoth, bravely tackling it or escaping from the dangerous situation. But this surely wasn’t necessary as I ran away from a non-existent danger? Still, in our relatively safe environment, a third of the population will suffer from an anxiety disorder or panic attack at some point in their lives.
The process of creating fear is entirely unconscious: worrying thoughts create a feeling of unease and dread, which in turn creates more worrying thoughts, causing a feedback loop and culminating in a panic attack. The unbearable feeling seems impossible to conquer and is so frightening that sufferers will do anything to avoid another attack, ultimately staying away from situations associated with anxiety. Two weeks after my first episode, I started to avoid crowded places, eventually becoming housebound and being diagnosed with agoraphobia. I had to break from this vicious circle and revert to a normal life. My brain was constantly on high alert therefore I needed to deactivate this stress response.
Embrace your fear and move forward
The road to recovery can be long with many setbacks, as the brain needs to be re-trained. The first step in addressing this internal turmoil is acknowledging what is scaring you, i.e if you have a phobia, or even if you are anxious of having another panic attack (there is even a word for it, phobophobia). As I believe that knowledge is power, I read all the books I could find to understand my condition, and with support from people close to me, honest communication about my feelings and meditation, I slowly regained confidence and started going out on my own. Just a few months later, I even braved the Tokyo Metro! A bit premature I have to say, but one needs to be brave because this eventful journey will paradoxically give you an inner strength that ‘normal’ people cannot obtain. Overcoming such an uncontrollable and intense fear and being able to tame it by ‘switching on’ a button in your brain is an incredibly powerful tool – not a weakness. By accepting that your own brain is at fault – and not the situation – you can learn how to turn down that sensitive button and regain your life.
I finally overcame my fear after years of struggle and I am proud of what I have achieved so far. I am still a worrier, but if the situation is not under my control, then worrying about it won’t make any difference, so I have learned to ignore my inner demons. I sometimes feel the early symptoms of an attack, but I can easily ignore them and move forward. Most importantly, I now feel free from fear and I am calm in most stressful situations. I have also become an emotionally stronger and more resilient person.
Recognise your achievements however small they might seem (I still remember my first bus trip, taken at my lowest point, as the biggest step towards recovery) and be proud of yourself. All these positive feelings, as well as positive coping statements, will counteract anxiety and allow you to reverse the cycle. Anxiety disorders can be completely debilitating, so don’t let your fear dominate your life and steal your happiness and dreams. You are not going mad, you are not going to die. And you can break free by challenging the negative voices in your head. Be fearless and learn to live life to the fullest.
- Words: Anne Guillot
- Illustration: Sangoiri / Shutterstock
- Article originally from issue 2 of Breathe – order digital edition here