Why do we feel fear and worry this much?

 

I have noticed that almost all of us do feel stress and fear every single day to different degrees. Some people feel it much intenser under certain circumstances and some feel it less. But why do we feel fear on a regular basis? I have thought about this a lot because it just didn’t make sense to me. I thought we are rational, we have the ability to think logically and find optimal solutions. Most of the time the reason behind our fear is not even real! So, why do we worry or fear this much? Although, I must also say that if the level of fear one experiences is higher than a certain degree and it has an ongoing duration, then it can be called the “Generalized Anxiety Disorder” or GAD which needs much more attention. But I am not talking about this here. I am talking about that “normal” amount of fear or worry that we all experience in our daily lives. Although we consider it as “normal” because we feel it so frequently, it still can have serious consequences for our happiness [1], relationships [2], work performance [3], mental and physical health. For example, it can lead to a decreased immune function (from delayed wound healing to development and progression of cancer) [4], decreased attentional control [5], insomnia [6], loss of libido [7], increased risk for stroke [8] and even depression [9]. Aren’t these enough reasons to stop worrying this much? I know it is not easy, but let’s give it a try! 🙂

 

What is fear?

I believe that we feel fear whenever we lose our sense of control. For example, when we have a deadline and think we might not meet the deadline (no control over the situation) or under a more serious condition, thinking that another person might harm us and we cannot control his behaviour. Whenever we’re afraid or feel stress, our body releases stress hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol [10]. At the level of the brain, whenever we are experiencing fear or worry, a region called amygdala will show an increased activation [11].

 

Thinking about the past or the future

We usually worry about something that is taking place in the future and we often imagine the worst scenarios. For example, what the reaction will be of a person we have a problem with or how your boss would react if you would ask him something. But seriously, how likely is the worst scenario to happen? Most of the time the worst scenario has a very small chance to happen. So, I guess we are not as logical as we think we are.

We are usually focusing on the future or in the past without actually doing something. We think about the past and what went wrong and stay there for too long, we think about the future and all the what ifs that could go wrong. And after spending too much time in the past and in the future, we come back to the present moment and realize we have not done anything about our problem and we start to freak out! If instead of lingering in the past and imagining a negative future, we had actually done something about our fear in the present moment and tried to find a solution, we would be feeling  so much better!

You may say: “ But I need to think about the future because otherwise I will lose my job” or “if I don’t think about the future how can I plan and have a better life?”. I don’t say don’t think about the future, all I am saying is don’t spend too much time in the future. What you are imagining (which is usually negative) might not even happen. Think about the future, know what you want, plan and execute your plan in the present moment.

 

Too focused on the problem  

I believe that we stay too focused on the problem and much less on the solution (if we do that at all!), we only see the problem and even if we think of some solution, once we face some new issues, we completely freak out and give up instead of solving them (flexibility is so important here).

To prove to you that we focus too long on the problem, let’s do something:

  • write down a list of things you need to do.
  • Write for each of them the (realistic) estimated time you need.
  • Then just continue living your day as usual.
  • At the end of the day, come back to your list and try to estimate how much time you spent thinking about doing the things on your list instead of just doing them.

 

I had done this a while ago and let me give you one of my examples. Although it was not a real problem but it was something that did cause me some discomfort at the time. One of the items on my list was “putting the garbage out” and I had estimated 5 minutes of time for its execution. It is a very simple job, but instead of doing it right away after writing my list, I just kept doing other stuff as I thought it is not as important. However, it did occupy part of my mind because every time I passed by the garbage bin I thought “Oh, by the way I haven’t put the garbage out yet, I must remember to put them out tonight, hopefully I won’t forget”. It did occupy part of my mind. When I actually put the garbage outside, do you know how much time it actually took me? Only 2 minutes and not even 5!! It is usually like this with all bigger problems as well. We could just start acting on them once we have a good solution. But instead we just keep torturing ourselves mentally with thinking about the time it will take and what if it doesn’t work, and keep postponing it. It is like something stops us whenever we want to do something we had planned for. Personally, I believe it is the defense mechanism that Freud talked about [12]. Whenever we want to do something big or important, our brain (unconsciously) tries to stop us in order to protect us from the feeling of failure (in case we fail). What I try to do is to just act fast (less than few seconds) so that my mind won’t have time to go into the defense/protection mode.

 

Negative thoughts

Even when we know the solution to our problem, we stay focused on the things that could go wrong while executing the solution. We are amazing creatures, aren’t we? 🙂

The way I see it is that whenever we face a big problem, we get scared and our brain wants to protects us, so it  stops us from going forward and doesn’t allow us to do anything (Sigmund Freud called it our mental “defense mechanism” [12]). It is like we hit a wall and if we stay strong and fight our fear for few seconds and don’t allow it to enter our mind, we can pass through the wall. And behind it there is a world of opportunities and solutions. We just very often get stuck behind the wall of fears and negative thoughts that stop us from moving forward. You know what would help you to get through this wall of fear? Two things:

1) Positive affirmations! A little positive self-talk would help us a lot here. Even if it feels like you are forcing yourself to think positive, just do it! Research shows that positive and optimistic people can cope better with problems, have better relationships and take a better care of their health. Whereas pessimists expect bad outcomes and this causes them to feel anxiety, sadness and anger [13]. Just remind yourself that everything is better than what you imagine in your head. We usually imagine the worst possible outcome and that is why we feel fear. If you cannot imagine a good or positive outcome at least try to be neutral. Sometimes if you don’t know the answer, give yourself some time while staying calm and relaxed. Just tell yourself “we will do something about it” or “just for today, I will not worry” and smile. 🙂

2) We must be aware that every problem can be divided into smaller problems. And once we do that, we only need to find several solutions for few smaller problems. It is also the same with solutions. We can break down a solution into several easier steps. We can only do this if we don’t get afraid once we face a big problem.

 

 

 

What to avoid

Avoid thinking of several problems at once or thinking of the things you need to do while doing some other task. Not only you’ll be less focused on your current task but get also stressed out. Even a computer cannot perform several tasks at the same time. It does appear so to us because it switches between tasks so rapidly, but it never performs several tasks at once (unless it has several processors, but it was just to give you an example of what I mean).

 

Other factors

You must also be aware that there are some other factors that can influence the anxiety and stress that you may feel. Such as sleep deprivation [14], vitamin D deficiency [15, 16], B vitamins deficiency (namely, B3 (or niacin), B6, B9 (or folate) and B12) [17],  and drinking too much caffein [18, 19]. If you feel that you worry more than usual without any particular reason, you may want to talk to your doctor and do a blood test, adjust your sleep habits and drink less coffee.

 

How to think and behave

– In general, we need to be more flexible. Sometimes we need to try completely new solutions or even change our direction. Only the strongest can survive, this is one of the laws of nature! One important aspect of being strong is being flexible and adapt to changes.

Be patient, because you may not find the solution right away. But you are much more likely to find it once you are calm than when you are afraid and stressed out as you become distracted and your attention decreases.

– Learn to take away your attention from what you don’t want, know what you don’t want and direct your attention towards what you want.

Don’t compare yourself to others, compare yourself with your own past (yes, here you are allowed  to go to the past for a little while :))! When you compare yourself to others, you just add unnecessary pressure to your own life. And then you will fear and worry about the what if’s in case you fail. Only under one circumstance compare yourself to other people: when you want to feel better, compare yourself with people who are in a more difficult situation than you are and feel grateful for what you have now.

Tell people how you feel and ask for support. Sometimes talking to our boss, colleague or partner about how we feel will help us incredibly as they can come up with better solutions and even support us in executing those solutions. You don’t have to carry all the burden alone.

– Sometimes the only solution is acceptance. For example, if a loved one has a terminal disease or if we know for sure we cannot reach our deadline, feeling fear or stress is so illogical, don’t you think? Under these circumstances, the only solutions is to surrender and accept the situation. Once you do this, not only you are not afraid anymore, but you will also experience a very deep peace of mind and you can decide better what to do next.

 

Next week, I will share with you a meditation technique that I have developed to help you to cope with stress and solve problems.

I hope you liked this post. If you did, don’t forget to share it with your loved ones.

 

With love 🙂

Marjan

 

References

 

  1. Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aaker, J. L., & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 505-516.
  2. Randall, A. K., & Bodenmann, G. (2009). The role of stress on close relationships and marital satisfaction. Clinical psychology review, 29(2), 105-115.
  3. Motowidlo, S. J., Packard, J. S., & Manning, M. R. (1986). Occupational stress: its causes and consequences for job performance. Journal of applied psychology, 71(4), 618.
  4. Marketon, J. I. W., & Glaser, R. (2008). Stress hormones and immune function. Cellular immunology, 252(1), 16-26.
  5. Liston, C., McEwen, B. S., & Casey, B. J. (2009). Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(3), 912-917.
  6. Morin, C. M., Rodrigue, S., & Ivers, H. (2003). Role of stress, arousal, and coping skills in primary insomnia. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(2), 259-267.
  7. Wingfield, J. C., & Sapolsky, R. M. (2003). Reproduction and resistance to stress: when and how. Journal of neuroendocrinology, 15(8), 711-724.
  8. Boden-Albala, B., & Sacco, R. L. (2000). Lifestyle factors and stroke risk: exercise, alcohol, diet, obesity, smoking, drug use, and stress. Current atherosclerosis reports, 2(2), 160-166.
  9. Van Praag, H. M. (2004). Can stress cause depression?. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 28(5), 891-907.
  10. Tsigos, C., & Chrousos, G. P. (2002). Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, neuroendocrine factors and stress. Journal of psychosomatic research, 53(4), 865-871.
  11. Whalen, P. J., Shin, L. M., McInerney, S. C., Fischer, H., Wright, C. I., & Rauch, S. L. (2001). A functional MRI study of human amygdala responses to facial expressions of fear versus anger. Emotion, 1(1), 70.
  12. Vaillant, G. E. (1992). Ego mechanisms of defense: a guide for clinicans and researchers. American Psychiatric Pub.
  13. Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 879-889.
  14. McEwen, B. S. (2006). Sleep deprivation as a neurobiologic and physiologic stressor: allostasis and allostatic load. Metabolism, 55, S20-S23.
  15. Armstrong, D. J., Meenagh, G. K., Bickle, I., Lee, A. S. H., Curran, E. S., & Finch, M. B. (2007). Vitamin D deficiency is associated with anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia. Clinical rheumatology, 26(4), 551-554.
  16. Kalueff, A. V., Lou, Y. R., Laaksi, I., & Tuohimaa, P. (2004). Increased anxiety in mice lacking vitamin D receptor gene. Neuroreport, 15(8), 1271-1274.
  17. Lim, S. Y., Kim, E. J., Kim, A., Lee, H. J., Choi, H. J., & Yang, S. J. (2016). Nutritional factors affecting mental health. Clinical nutrition research, 5(3), 143-152.
  18. Charney, D. S., Galloway, M. P., & Heninger, G. R. (1984). The effects of caffeine on plasma MHPG, subjective anxiety, autonomic symptoms and blood pressure in healthy humans. Life sciences, 35(2), 135-144.
  19. Broderick, P., & Benjamín, A. B. (2004). Caffeine and psychiatric symptoms: a review. The Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, 97(12), 538-542.

 

3 Responses to “Why do we feel fear and worry this much?

  • Thank you very much for this post, really! I worry alot about my future and little things that I have to overcome in order to feel better about myself and around others, but I always end up creating more problems in my mind that don’t even exist! It’s really stressfull.
    I’ll have to remind myself to read this when I’ll feel anxious. Thank you!

    • Marjan Biria, MSc
      1 year ago

      Hello Maria,

      thank you so much for your kind comment. I am very glad you liked this post. Hopefully it can help you to feel better and worry less. This Wednesday we publish a meditation technique that can also be helpful to feel more relaxed and solve a problem that bothers you.

      But know that you are not alone, I think we all do the things you described. But we don’t have to keep doing them once we become aware that they are useless and wrong. Maybe every now and then during the day we could check on our thoughts and see if we have worried for unreal reasons or not. I’m sure it has happened to all of us that we were very much scared of a future event or circumstance and at the end, something unexpected happened that we didn’t think about or even knew about and things went just great and all our fear and worries were just waste of our time and energy. I think this phrase can also be helpful: “just for today I will not worry”.
      Wish you all the best! 🙂 Marjan

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