Understanding fear and anxiety
SHAVANI BISSOON Bissoon is a registered psychological counsellor.
AT THE start of the violent unrest and looting, we were left overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and fear. We had to face the reality of having to fight for our families, property and, even worse, the possibility of not seeing the next day. Though some find they are gripped by overwhelming fear and anxiety, after the first incidents it is encouraging and heartfelt to see so many individuals and communities coming together to support and help one another despite fear, racial and social divides. Against this backdrop, we are able to see the basic functioning and nature of fear and anxiety first hand. In those moments of watching the visuals or hearing reports of unrest flaring, you may have felt uneasy, tense and afraid. You may have even experienced muscle tension or body pains. These physical reactions are symptoms of a deeper process happening in the interplay between our mind and body. In understanding the emotions we experienced over the past week, and continue to feel, it is important to first understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is a natural emotion; albeit an unpleasant feeling. Fear plays a vital role in our mental health – as fear is triggered when our brain perceives that we may be in danger or there is a threat of bodily harm. Fear, in this case, tells us action is needed. Many people in the past week may have experienced or continue to experience the following bodily changes: Heart rate increases. Breathing faster or shortness of breath. Muscles feel week or trembling. Increased blood pressure and sweating. Stomach cramps, ulcers or heartburn. Finding it hard to concentrate or focus. Feeling light-headed or dizzy. Being frozen on the spot. Unable to eat or relax. Tension in the muscles (shoulders, neck). Back and body pains. Easily frightened. Emotional (cry easily or become angry easily). Many of the symptoms (increased heart rate and deep breathing) are due to our bodies’ response to fear – alerting (tension and body pains) and preparing you to deal with an emergency. The heart rate increases to allow for blood and necessary hormones (adrenalin and cortisol) to be sent to vital organs and muscles throughout the body. You may find that muscles get stiff and blood sugar levels increase in order to prepare you for fight (in a form of self-defence) or flight (energy to escape if danger is too much). This may be the reason you may have felt a sudden burst of energy; the drive and motivation to keep yourself, your family, your community and business safe. You may find that as the unrest has eased and you are feeling hopeful, motivated and energised in preparing to return to day-to-day life, anxiety persists as you may be unable to fall asleep, feel tension or even anger. In such situations, it is important to pay a little more attention to our mental health. You may need more effective coping mechanisms to deal with emotions – among them: Take a break from social media or news stories. Be aware but also avoid being flooded with news stories that may be unverified or fake. Mute people on social media that may incite talk of violence and panic. Get to know your body. When you feel tension; increased heart rate or being unable to breathe; understand that your body is signalling that there is stress and mental health resources are needed. Breathing techniques help focus on the here and now and prevent you from being caught up in the hype. Google/internet is a great resource for searching for “relaxation techniques”, “relaxing music”, “relaxed breathing” and so on. Have regular, well-balanced meals; avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco and substance use; and exercise regularly. Prepare a daily plan which makes sure that you get enough sleep and down time. Reconnect with what makes you happy. Listen to music, resume a hobby. Find healthy ways to connect with loved ones. In this time of physical distancing, use social media to connect with loved ones. Community support services may include faith-based organisations; social welfare groups and medical professionals. Start with who you know. If you open up and be honest with how you feel, you will help others be open about their emotions. Support groups are also a helpful way to get social support. You may browse through the Sadag (SA Depression and Anxiety Group) website to find or start a support group in your area. Self-care is vital. Aromatherapy – adding a few drops of essential oils into your hand cream and massage oil is essential to reduce stress and anxiety. As they play a vital role in our survival, the symptoms of fear and anxiety are a normal physical reaction when faced with danger or a traumatic event. The symptoms may reduce over time with little to no intervention. During these uncertain times, we have to face fears other than of violence and unrest. Many individuals have to also deal with fears of job loss, loss of income, Covid-19, food shortages and the general welfare of our families. The fears may not just go away but rather lead to overwhelming worry, leading to anxiety – a feeling of fear that is strong enough to interfere with daily activities and normal functioning of life. Anxiety is an overwhelming emotion and we may experience it as panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, excessive worry, difficulty sleeping and muscle aches. Often anxiety and depression are linked and new traumas (such as the violent uproars over the past week) may trigger unresolved hurts from our past to re-emerge to the surface. Anxiety makes you feel as though you are reliving the hurtful experience all the while, living in fear that the trauma may happen again. When you experience anxiety at this level, it is recommended that you consult a healthcare professional who will help you understand the roots of anxiety, and to learn coping mechanisms to deal with it. Additional Resources: Contact the Department of Social Development in your area for access to social workers and referrals to community-based organisations. Contact your ward councillor and enquire if there are any community initiatives. Organisations like Sadag, Famsa, LifeLine and Durban and Coastal Mental Health can help. Your police station may have a victimfriendly centre that provides walk-in, confidential support services. Join your community police forum to be actively part of change. Clinics and hospitals have social work departments and mental health services. Your GP may refer you to a registered counsellor or psychologist. My takeaway message from the events of the past week is that fear has an essential purpose in our lives and mental health. But fear is also a reminder that that we have the resources within us for healing and peace. It is possible to take ownership of your fear and healing.