Our mind and body are designed to launch into protection mode in response to a real or perceived threat. It’s a natural defense mechanism designed to keep us safe, yet it can result in unwanted feelings that can make life difficult. These responses can take the form of anxiety or fear, common emotions we all experience on occasion. Here’s how you can identify, manage and overcome these negative emotions and their associated symptoms.
First off, it’s important to define the difference between occasional negative emotional states and those that persist. The latter is commonly referred to as a mood or mental health disorder and require the help of a mental health professional to properly diagnose and treat. Whilst the following techniques may still be of use, if you fall into this category it is highly recommended you seek professional help and reach out to local resources for assistance. See our recap for more information.
Anxiety, Fear, What’s The Difference?
Many use the terms fear and anxiety interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two.
Fear is a common response to a known or definite threat. Ever heard of the fight or flight response? This system is triggered when you become fearful or afraid. The most obvious physical indications include a rapid heartbeat and an increase breathing rate. Some people also tremble or shake involuntarily due to an increase in adrenaline. These physiological effects are due to the activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system and are an attempt to get you to run (‘take flight’) away or prepare to engage with your perceived threat (fight!).
Anxiety on the other hand arises from a vaguer sense of apprehension and uneasiness. Here the threat is less well defined and is often imprecise or unknow. If fear is a response to present danger, then anxiety is a response to the possibility of danger itself – your mind’s interpretation that something might happen. It can stem from a multitude of triggers, including past, present or even future concerns, and may include the following physiological symptoms:
- Chest pain (or tightness in chest)
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
- Sleeping difficulty
- Stiffness in head, neck and jaw
Much like fear, anxiety symptoms are born of a hormonal response. The chief culprit is cortisol, also known as the ‘stress hormone‘.
Assessing Your Own Mental Health
So how can you tell if this is a once off bout of anxiety, a phobia or evidence of an anxiety disorder? In order to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, psychologists (and psychiatrists) must first perform a mental health assessment. When being assessed, the individual will need to meet a set number of evidence-based criteria (either a DSM or ICD diagnostic), and then the mental health professional would work with the individual to develop a treatment plan to help address the issue.
At a broad level, fear and anxiety disorders are classified as persistent, reoccurring responses (usually long lasting) which causes significant disturbances to an individual’s quality of life. Circumstances that cause the symptomology are routinely avoided and the fear or anxiety response is disproportionate to the threat itself.
If you feel you are experiencing a long-term mental health event that is impacting your daily life, or are unable to impartially assess your own mental wellbeing, it is important to seek the assistance of a professional.
Treatment Options Are Available
There are several established ways to address fear and anxiety and help you regain control of your life by restoring balance to your emotional state. As mentioned, if you psychotherapy options (seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist or councillor) are available either in person or via telehealth services.
Mindfulness is a method of remaining present and silencing the overactive parts of your brain that may be stimulated during a fear or anxiety-based episode. The idea behind mindfulness meditation is to cause the over developed emotional centres of the brain (the ones that are easily triggered and overcompensate in their emotional response) to return to normal size through actively concentration. The great news is that results can be made with as little input as five minutes per day. As you become better at mindfulness meditation, try increasing the length of each session. There are many resources available online, including Calm.
Avoid stimulants! Drinking coffee or consuming stimulants can not only increase your probability of an anxious episode by mimicking the same symptomology (increased heart rate, sweating, etc) but can also predispose you to an episode by interrupting your patterns of sleep.
Exercise is a great way to both buffer against negative emotions whilst also doubling as an outlet that can help you deal with any lingering thoughts. Yoga, running and even strength training can be fun ways to invest in your own health and wellbeing. These activities build strength, resilience and discipline which are important factors in improving your own self-worth. People who exercise also tend to have lower rates of mental illness and report better emotional states, perhaps due to the release of ‘positive’ chemicals and hormones (serotonin, endorphins) when you exercise.
Reach out to a friend and let them know how you feel. Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma around mental health issues, which can cause people to feel guilty or even ashamed of their thoughts and feelings. It’s important to reframe asking for help as a sign of strength, not weakness. Being in touch with your current state and accepting where you are at is the only way you can begin to move forward. That takes courage. Fortunately, you are not alone – there are entire organisations and communities who recognise the power of connection and are there to happily start the conversation when you are ready (see R U OK?).
Help Is Here
Remember, help is available wherever you are and for whatever is currently troubling you. Check with your local doctor for a referral to a mental health professional or consult the appropriate health process in your country for more help and assistance. There are also many great online and phone-based resources available across the world that can help you get back to living a better quality of life.
Know that things will be okay.
Online & Telehealth Services:
- BetterHelp (Global)
- Mosh (Australia)
- Global Hotlines
- Mental Health Hotline (US) – 866-903-3787
- Lifeline (NZ) – 0800 543 354