Fear and anxiety, why do they paralyze us?
The fear it is an emotion that arises before a perception of danger. It is mainly related to two types of responses: attack or flight. Both are adaptive and tremendously useful, as they alert us when a danger threatens us. But, there is a third response, which is less known, but which also occurs before this emotion, and is paralysis. Many animals, in the presence of imminent danger, choose to remain still or pretend to be dead.
Although among us it is more difficult to find this answer in front of the fear, also occurs, especially in stimuli related to damage or blood. It is relatively common to meet people who suffer vasovagal syncope when they have a blood test or go to the dentist and although they do not faint, they do suffer from dizziness in this type of situation.
Fear in today's society
In today's society, we do not usually face dangers as large as thousands of years ago. However, our brain is the same on a biological level as the brain of our predecessors, so the reactions are the same as we used to. That is, before, to escape from imminent danger, it was adaptive that our heart would accelerate, our muscles would tense and our breathing would accelerate. In this way, we prepared physiologically to escape.
At the present time, these physiological responses to the fear, can become adaptive to stimuli such as having to stay too many hours at work or make a public conversation.
How does fear and anxiety affect performance?
A fair dose of anxiety helps us stay alert and optimize the mobilization of our resources to face the demands of the environment more effectively. What happens is that if this emotion is too intense, the execution of the task is less effective. The same happens if our activation is too low.
Imagine that they propose to give a talk in public. A little anxiety will come in handy to be attentive to the questions and think the answers quickly. But if the anxious response is too intense, you are likely to focus too much attention on possible threats. Surely you feel palpitations, sweating, muscle tension and agitated breathing. Negative cognitive assessments of the situation may even begin to appear. It is relatively frequent that thoughts like "I'm sure I'm boring the audience" appear, "I'm sure they notice that my hand trembles" or "they're going to ask me something I do not know". What causes the intensity of anxiety will grow until we try to escape the situation.
The opposite can also happen to us, imagine that you are very used to giving talks in public and this one in particular seems especially boring. Surely, to be little activated, you have prepared less talk, mobilize less resources to meet the demands of it and you may not be as bright as if you had put something nervous.
Strategies to prevent fear and anxiety from paralyzing us
This emotion, like all of them, has three response systems. The cognitive (what we think), the physiological (what we feel) and the behavioral (what we do) and there is a strategy for each of the response systems.
1. At the cognitive level, we can make use of re-evaluation. In general, the first cognitive evaluation we make of a stimulus is automatic, and it is the one that triggers the emotion. But we can modify this evaluation by resorting to certain questions such as:
What is the worst that can happen?
If the worst happened, would it really be that bad?
What are the real chances of this happening?
If I ran, would I have the resources to face the situation?
Generally, after asking these questions, we tend to realize that the stimulus that is making us feel anxious is not so much.
2. Physiologically, we have relaxation techniques. These procedures help us lower the intensity of our physical responses. There are several types, but in general, it is usually enough to control breathing. A good way to do it is to spend twice as much time expiring as to inspire it. In this way we avoid hyperventilation, which is usually the culprit that our physiological symptoms shoot up.
3. At the behavioral level, The best strategy we have is exposure to stimuli that generate fear. As long as these stimuli do not exert a real danger for us. There are different ways to do it, but you can make a hierarchy of situations that generate anxiety or fear and order it from the lowest to the highest. Start facing the situations that generate less fear and you will see how little by little you gain confidence to do it with more difficult situations.You do not have to do it all at once, you can substitute avoiding behaviors for approaching behaviors. For example, if we are afraid to speak in public, instead of avoiding being the center of attention in your group of friends, we can choose to try to tell a joke or a story. Reward yourself for every little effort, never for the result.
- Fear and anxiety are adaptive emotions that help us survive on certain occasions.
- The brain is very conservative and they shoot at times that we do not need.
- The brain is able to learn and change its way of responding before certain stimuli. Therefore, if we use these techniques, little by little we will be able to make our fear and our anxiety play in our favor and stop blocking us.
Jesus Matos. Psychologist expert in management of sadness. Founder of the online platform In Mental Balance.