Understanding Fear and Panic – the “Circle of Fear”
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his First Inaugural Address. I’m sorry Mr. President, but I thoroughly disagree with this statement. Why should we fear fear? Isn’t it a natural response to certain situations?
Fear is normal. We all feel it. In fact, it’s fear that can actually help us learn to avoid dangerous situations. Fear can protect us. But sometimes, we become afraid of the feelings that fear brings. Sometimes, those very same symptoms that can help to save our lives, make us anxious, make us fearful. A major aspect of anxiety is the tendency to develop a fear of fear. In other words, becoming afraid when having feelings which we attribute to anxiety or fear, no matter what the reason. In this case, not only do we try to avoid the fearful situation that has started these feelings in the first place, but the feeling of fear also becomes something we want to try to avoid. This is really the basis of anxiety and panic attacks – the fear of fear.
What exactly is a panic attack? Clinically speaking, a panic attack is an intense fear that results in a surge of adrenaline in our bodies. Adrenaline is a hormone that is released by the adrenal gland. It is perfectly normal to have this adrenaline surge, perfectly natural, and here’s the important point, it is perfectly safe. We may get an adrenaline rush, as it’s called, in different situations: when in a fearful situation, when stressed, or when doing something that’s physically demanding or exciting.
An adrenaline rush can be beneficial. It actually helps us. In what ways? It allows the airways and blood vessels to dilate which results in more oxygen being sent to the brain, respiratory system and muscles. This helps us feel stronger and more able to function in scary situations.
Have you heard about the fight/flight response? In a dangerous situation, the adrenaline surge helps us in determining whether to stay and fight or flee the scene. It also gives us an extra boost so if you stay to fight you may find you have more strength than you think possible. Or if you flee, you may find you can run faster than ever before. Perhaps you’ve read accounts from people who have been in dangerous situations who have said, “I don’t know where the strength came from,” or “I don’t know how I got myself out of there so fast, but before I knew it, I was far away from the scene.”
Let’s get back to the notion of fear of fear. Consider the following examples.
A young woman is standing at a curb and steps foot out into the street. All of a sudden a car comes careening past and the driver honks the horn, loudly and continuously. Frightened, she jumps back up on the curb and waits until the danger has passed. Once the adrenaline surge (remember, there will be an adrenaline surge along with the fear) has subsided, she is once again calm, and comfortably steps out into the street and crosses it. The woman does not get frightened about her reaction to the honking because she believes it’s normal, natural to have reacted with fear to this situation.
Now, a few days later, this same woman, is sitting in a movie theater when a commercial comes on the screen reminding people to turn off their cell phones, sit quietly and notice where the emergency exits are. While watching the commercial, she wonders to herself to which exit she would run in case of an emergency. That thought caused a slight feeling of butterflies in her stomach. Having this feeling alarmed the woman because she imagined the commercial did not cause anyone else concern and she became concerned the butterflies in her stomach would turn into an anxiety attack. She wondered, “What happens if I start to panic?” which caused her to get a little more anxious. The woman then began to think there must be something wrong with her because she was having these anxious feelings when everyone around her seemed to be feeling fine. This caused a further increase in anxiety. The more the woman became concerned about her feelings of anxiety, the stronger they became. The stronger these feelings became, the more anxious she got. The woman’s fear of the fear, caused her to become more and more anxious.
The above represents what I call the “Circle of Fear.” We become uncomfortable with our feelings of anxiety and define them as abnormal or unnatural, as feelings others must not be experiencing given the same situation. So, unlike the first example when the woman was crossing the street and felt justified in feeling anxious, in the second scenario she did not feel the situation warranted any anxiety which in turn caused her to become more anxious. And because she didn’t feel any of her feelings of anxiety were a normal reaction, this caused her anxious feelings to mount.
It is our interpretation of our anxious feelings that may cause our anxiety to increase. If we think these feelings are justified, we are likely to ignore them and let them fade by themselves. If, however, we do not believe we should be having these feelings, they may grow in intensity and feel as if they are taking over.
Remember, anxiety is a perfectly normal and natural feeling to have. We all get anxious about different things. When we fear those anxious feelings and convince ourselves they are unwarranted, we have a pretty good chance of increasing the very anxiety we’re trying to stop.
As a response to Franklin D. Roosevelt who said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” no, there is nothing to fear about fear.