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The Physiological Impact of Fear on the Body and How to Begin Alleviating It

Fear is a primitive, yet powerful emotion, rooted deep within our evolutionary history. It serves as a survival mechanism, alerting us to dangers and preparing our bodies to either face them or flee. This is accomplished via the sympathetic nervous system.

According to Harvard Health Publishibg Blog, "When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.

The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers"

However, when fear becomes chronic or is triggered by non-threatening situations, it can have harmful effects on our health. Understanding the physiological response to fear and adopting strategies to mitigate it can help promote well-being.

How Does Fear Affect the Body Physiologically?

  • Fight or Flight Response: The moment fear takes hold, the amygdala, is activated. This triggers the release of stress hormones, primarily adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare our bodies to face the threat or run from it.

  • Added to fight or flight is also freeze and fawn. Once the stress hormones are released not only is the sympathetic nervous system preparing for fighting or fleeing, it also can cause 2 other fear/trauma responses. Those are freeze and/or fawn. Both also ways the nervous system faces the threat.

  • Increased Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: To pump more oxygen to vital organs and muscles, the heart rate and blood pressure increase. This sudden spike, if frequent, can pose risks to cardiovascular health.

  • Rapid Breathing: The lungs work harder to supply the body with oxygen, leading to faster and shallow breathing. This can be problematic for individuals with respiratory issues.

  • Muscle Tension: Muscles tense up to prepare for potential physical action. Prolonged muscle tension can lead to physical ailments like headaches or chronic pain.

  • Digestive Issues: Fear diverts blood away from the digestive system, impairing its function. This can result in problems like nausea, stomach cramps, or diarrhea.

  • Suppressed Immune System: Chronic fear or stress can suppress the immune system, making the body more susceptible to illnesses.

Why is Chronic Fear Detrimental?

While the immediate physiological changes brought about by fear can be life-saving in genuine threat situations, persistent fear has very bad effects:

  • Mental Health Risks: Chronic fear and anxiety can lead to mental health disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and even depression.

  • Cognitive Impairments: Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can impair memory and reduce the brain's capacity to process information.

  • Physical Health Risks: From heart diseases to lowered immunity and digestive problems, chronic fear can lead to a multitude of health issues.

  • Social Withdrawal: Individuals might avoid social situations or activities they once enjoyed out of fear, leading to isolation and loneliness.

How to Reduce Fear and its Physiological Impact?

  • Reinvent Your Mind with Mindfulness and Meditation: Practicing mindfulness helps anchor you in the present moment. Meditation, especially focused breathing exercises, can calm the mind, reduce cortisol levels, and counteract the body's fear response.

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals understand the negative patterns of their thinking and equips them with strategies to cope with fear.

  • NLP, or neurolinguistic programming can help to change behaviors and beliefs and approach the world in a more constructive way.

  • Recharge with Physical Activity: Regular exercise can act as a natural antidote to fear. It releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers, and helps in reducing stress hormones. Many exercise routines can be adapted to accommodate for disabilities and /or medical limitations.

  • Refuel with healthy foods and Limit Caffeine and Sugar: Eat lots of vegetables and fruits, organic if not on the clean 15 list for 2023.  Excessive caffeine or sugar can exacerbate anxiety and fear. Moderating their intake can help keep fear reactions in check.

  • Review pharmaceutical drugs for side effects especially those that include anxiety and decreased ability to sleep. Discuss with your doctor and review to be sure when taking those that the benefit outweighs the risk.

  • Stay Connected: Talking to someone you trust, whether it's a friend, family member, or therapist, can be cathartic. Sharing your fears and anxieties can provide relief and clarity.

  • Avoiding Alcohol and Drugs: While they might seem like quick fixes, alcohol and drugs can aggravate fear and anxiety in the long run.

  • Spiritual Coaching. Sometimes, understanding what's causing fear can reduce its intensity.  A coach can help you gain insights and improve personal understanding.

In conclusion, while fear has an essential role in alerting us to dangers, chronic or misdirected fear can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental well-being. Recognizing the signs of undue fear and adopting strategies to combat it can lead to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Schedule a spiritual coaching appointment and learn more to directly apply this in your life.

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