Have you ever felt suddenly anxious or "on edge" and didn't know why? There are many reasons why we might feel fearful at different times. We get scared about things like physical danger, accidents, natural disasters, and so on. These are all situations where fear can be helpful because it triggers the "fight or flight" response, which floods our bodies with adrenaline and prompts us to defend ourselves or flee the danger.
Unfortunately, there are also plenty of other situations where the fight or flight response is unnecessarily triggered and we end up feeling threatened and defensive even when there is nothing harmful about the present moment.
For example, we often fear job interviews, public speaking engagements, social gatherings, sports and other performance activities, doctor and hospital visits, and more. These situations are not physically threatening yet our bodies often react to them as if they were.
Have you ever struggled with irrational fears like these? Even though they may seem irrational, they actually have a simple cause: your thoughts. When you are faced with a situation that you feel unprepared to handle, your thoughts begin racing with horrible possibilities. Your thoughts in this moment might sound something like this: "I can't give a speech in front of people, what if I mess up? I'm no good at sports; I'll only embarrass myself if I try to play. I don't want to go to the doctor; what if he finds something awful?" As these thoughts race through your mind they trigger the fear response and your body begins reacting as if you were in actual physical danger.
Physical and Emotional Symptoms of Fear
When fear begins infiltrating your body, you will notice some unmistakable signs and symptoms. These signs include tightening of your muscles, especially in the neck, shoulder and back area; you may also feel a tightening or queasiness in your abdomen; tightness or pressure in the chest, shortness of breath, pounding heart, restlessness, and muscle weakness or shakiness in the arms and legs.
Beyond the physical sensations you may also notice negative emotions like defensiveness, irritability, frustration, anger, aggression, sadness, and helplessness. Continuously being faced with fearful situations can also lead to more serious physical and emotional problems such as insomnia, depression, appetite changes, weight loss or weight gain, and paranoia.
So, what can you do when you feel overwhelmed by fear? Positive self-talk is one way to begin shifting your thoughts from fearful to calming. Rather than worrying about negative things that could happen, you might soothe yourself by saying things like, "There's nothing to be afraid of; it will all work out fine; I believe I can handle anything; all is well." Even better, intend to do everything you can to encourage a positive outcome for the fearful situation. You could practice giving a speech repeatedly until you feel more comfortable, or visualize the doctor giving you a clean bill of health.
When you change the thoughts that are triggering your fear response, the fearful feelings subside.
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