Healthy fear versus unhealthy anxiety

Sometimes fear and anxiety can arrive uninvited, influencing our thoughts and behaviour at times when we really need a clear head and confident actions. Fear involves our survival instincts and unthinking reactions, and if we act to resolve the fear, we then can feel relief as our nervous system settles again into feeling safe.

Sometimes, a situation causes fear, evoked by our mental and emotional memories of frightening times and we might react in a similar way to how we survived in the past, but the reactions do not always resolve the fear in the present moment. Anxiety arises when we cannot resolve our fear through our thoughts or actions. It’s a lingering background ‘noise’ which sometimes takes over and sometimes subsides, depending on how ‘close’ the threat seems to be; but it doesn’t go away until we know the threat has gone. Anxiety affects our ability to focus on anything and it is detrimental to our mental and physical health.

Corona Virus has turned out to be unresolvable threat and before that, the global environmental crisis has evoked threat and fear for many of us. Both seem unresolvable in the short term, so anxiety seems set to stay with us for the time being unless we can find ways to meet our needs to settle enough and take effective actions to deal with the immediate threats.

In this post I am offering a perspective to try to help disentangle and validate some of the fear which might be helpful in informing you around how to navigate the spectrum of fear and anxiety. Your instincts will be trying to guide you to stay safe, and they give important information to consider and perhaps act upon in these times.

I also encourage you to pause and wonder what might be ‘unhealthy’ or unhelpful anxiety which you can try to let go of. Unhealthy anxiety might be familiar to you as the kinds of ruminations and unending cycles of worry that lead nowhere but to stress and self-judgment. You might be aware of ‘triggers’ that tend to activate stronger anxiety, perhaps echoes from a time when you felt very threatened and the fear from that time. Perhaps you recognise these more intense states adding to the experience.

At this time of Covid19, our communities, countries and international collective humanity are riven with a life-threatening virus which does feel scary in body and mind. Additional to the fear, there is confusion as we are told to stay away from each other, that we might actually cause harm to each other if we get to close. A a social species, this is hugely confusing to our nervous systems because normally when we feel threatened we want to get close to those we feel safe with. At the same time, as is being shown now, we also recognise that there is wisdom in isolating to avoid contamination because through sacrifices to ourselves, we protect our community.

So this fear of each other is supporting our health to some extent. You may have heard the term ‘healthy fear’, which means the kind of fear that stops us to consider risk to our wellbeing and livelihood when we perceive a threat that we don’t know how to deal with. Healthy fear is hardwired into us in the form of startle reflexes when that something happens suddenly or unexpectedly, to stop us and get us looking around; whilst if something is looming, or approaching more slowly, we get uneasy feelings in our guts that might keep us there a while looking at it, whilst we weigh up pros and cons of an action or inaction. Still we need to watch out for exaggerations that can build on healthy fear to become unhelpful cycles of worry.

Whilst it’s important to allow our healthy fear instincts to inform us and prevent us transmitting the virus or becoming infected, we can also easily become unhealthily anxious and even paranoid about our own actions and the actions of others. This is where our bodily feelings and our thoughts might not be working together so well. We have been cognitively primed to be ‘alert’ for danger of contamination by messages from our government and from the news of the spread of the virus globally. Our bodies follow suit and we behave accordingly. We need to be alert, but it isn’t helpful to constantly worry about infection when we are doing all that we can to avoid it. If we worry, our bodies also begin to feel the impacts of unresolvable anxiety in ways that we can recognise as stress and illness.

Do you have a sense of the healthy, and unhealthy fear patterns in your thoughts, feelings and behaviour? I’ve written a few things that help me to sort out the difference between healthy and unhealthy fears. I hope they might be helpful to clarify your experience:

  • Talk about your worry with others, check if they have similar or different worries, an opportunity to ask for and offer any reassurances to each other. Note how you feel after talking it through.
  • Write about your worries and see if there are patterns or themes you recognise and can relate to more easily now. Again, note how you feel in your body and emotions and check these with what you have written.
  • Remind yourself of all of the ways you are trying to address your fears: precautions you are taking that keep you and others physically safe and emotionally connected. If you realise that you are not taking enough precautions, you might want to update things and review again soon.
  • Take the time to enjoy being in Nature, listening to music or treating your body to gentle or vigorous exercise depending how you feel and what is available to you so you can feel yourself taking care of your nervous system and feeling gratitude for what feels good in your life.

Sometimes there are reasons why we cannot let go of the uhelpful worrying. In that case, it might be good to seek professional help. If you would like to have a free 20 minute confidential conversation with me about what is worrying you at this time, I may be able to help you take the next step to getting help. Please contact me to arrange a good time to talk.