Despite what horror movies depict, panic rarely kills anyone. What does kill people is a less dramatic but insidious kind of fear that afflicts many of us over extended periods. Years of mild, persistent worry rather than sudden unexpected shocks are the real killers. This kind of fear kills slowly by wearing us down and weakening our immune systems. So, it’s hardly surprising that most people find it difficult to believe experts who tell them that fear is good for them and essential for their survival. But the experts are right.
Fear is an ingenious natural response to the stimulus of danger. Its very unpleasantness is its greatest asset: it focuses our attention on the cause and doesn’t go away until we do something about it. In practice, this means confronting a threat head-on or finding a way of escaping from it. This involuntary and instantaneous reaction to an immediate danger is induced by the autonomic nervous system and is commonly called the “fight or flight response.”
Though fear is vital for our survival, constant fear over an extended period provokes ongoing stress, and scientist now know that even mild ongoing stress disrupts important mechanisms in our bodies and can damage our immune system. Perhaps, not surprisingly, stress is implicated in many psychological illnesses and ailments such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse. More surprisingly, it’s also directly linked to serious physical disorders like diabetes, psoriasis, ulcers, cancers and cardiovascular diseases. As far back as the 1960’s, it was demonstrated that ongoing stress in children impairs their physical development because it interferes with the pituitary gland’s production of growth hormone.
When all these responses to fear and stress are occasional and temporary, our systems can easily cope and quickly revert to normal with no long-term ill effects. The outcome can be quite different, though, if they persist. Unrelenting fear and stress can disrupt the very delicate balance between our bodies’ interdependent biological and neurological systems; many of those systems and their interactions with each other are not fully understood. Attempts at restoring the balance through medication are problematic and often counterproductive because they usually disrupt other aspects of our systems, making the ultimate outcome of any intervention unpredictable.
The good news is that even if many of us are destined to live with regular bouts of fear, we can do quite a lot to make life more bearable and even pleasant. According to experts, being involved in mentally stimulating activities and taking regular exercise reduces stress and dulls the pangs of fear so that they’re hardly noticeable. Recent studies suggest that exercise can even reverse some of the cellular damage caused by stress and aging. In other words, exercise makes us healthier, and helps us live longer and happier lives. Apart from physical and mental exercises, a large number of anti-stress techniques and foods are easily accessible to everyone. They range from music, massage, meditation and Tai Chi, to black tea and foods containing omega 3 fatty acids.