By Dr. Adeola Mead, ND
Have you noticed that it seems like every source of news and media is filled with negativity lately? From international and domestic terrorism, tragedies and political chaos to struggles with interpersonal relationships and individual well-being, we are steadily bombarded with disheartening messages that can leave us feeling a wide range of emotions. This can impact both physical and mental health. It is imperative that we gain awareness of how we are each affected and utilize the many resources available to us in moving from a place of vulnerability to one of self-empowerment.
The Biology of Fear
The Nervous System
The human nervous system controls voluntary and involuntary actions and sends messages between different parts of the body. It consists of the central and peripheral branches. The central nervous system (CNS) contains the brain and spinal cord while the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is made up of nerves that connect the CNS to other parts of the body. The PNS is further divided into the somatic, autonomic and enteric nervous systems. The somatic branch controls voluntary movement and the enteric branch control gastrointestinal function. The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches. They both control involuntary, reflexive and visceral functions like the expansion and contraction of the heart, lungs, blood vessels and pupils.
The two parts of the autonomic nervous system counterbalance each other. The parasympathetic nervous system controls the “rest and digest” functions of the body and helps to restore and maintain balance. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight/flight/freeze system in response to perceived danger. When presented with a threat, all functions that are not required for survival are suspended. Consider how you might react if a tiger were chasing you or you had an important deadline to meet on a short timeline – Your heart and breathing rates increase, your pupils dilate so you can see better and muscles contract so you can run faster. Some of the changes you may not notice at the time include a surge in adrenaline and cortisol (hormones produced by the adrenal glands to manage stress), increase in blood sugar to provide energy for your muscles and a decrease in saliva and movement in your digestive tract. There is also an increase in activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps you stay focused in the midst of danger and store the experience in your memory for later reference. Once you’ve outrun the tiger or you find out the deadline has been moved up a few days, the “rest and digest” functions are restored, thankfully, and all the above changes are reversed by the action of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The above scenario describes a short-lived stressor or threat but what happens when the perceived danger is long-lasting or perceived as ever-present? Fear is the emotion triggered by perceived threat. It is survival instinct that signals the fight/flight/freeze response. It is intended to keep us safe so we are able to respond appropriately. When fear is prolonged and the resulting nervous system responses are prolonged, it can lead to health concerns that can feel debilitating.
Health risks related to prolonged fear or stress
Once a memory is stored in response to fear, all the details surrounding the experience are also stored. These can include the physical environment, smells, sounds and other sensory cues that can later become triggers for a similar fear response. One can become fearful when presented with these otherwise benign stimuli. Also, once a fear state is activated, rational thinking may be suspended and more events can be perceived as negative and remembered that way. This can lead to a perpetuation of the stress response and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, brain fog or poor cognition, insomnia, anxiety or depression.
The prolonged dysregulation of heart, blood vessel and lung function can contribute to a higher risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.
The immune system is weakened by high levels of cortisol, and there is increased inflammation throughout the body, higher susceptibility to infections and slower healing from illnesses.
Prolonged high cortisol causes high blood sugar and increased storage of abdominal or visceral fat. It can also reduce protein synthesis and lead to a reduction in lean muscle mass.
Since the “rest and digest” functions are suspended, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, abdominal pain and indigestion may occur.
A stress response causes muscles to contract but in the long-term that can lead to musculoskeletal pain, tight muscles and tension headaches.
For children, toxic stress, or persistent high levels of stress, in the form of neglect, abuse, harsh parenting or even just exposure to a stressful environment can lead to behavioral and emotional developmental impairment as well as increased susceptibility to chronic diseases. Some of these effects can be mitigated with the benefit of warm, sensitive and proactive caregiving but it is all the more important to protect our children from excessive fear and its ill effects for the sake of our future as a society.
Managing responses to fear
Now that we know that fear has a purpose, what do we do with it? We can begin by acknowledging that we are indeed feeling fearful, accepting that it is OK to feel fear and then spend the time to develop awareness around our sources of fear and discover what these feelings can teach us about ourselves. Once on the road to greater self-knowledge, we can take steps to move from fear to self-empowerment and establish of inner peace through personal growth. This is a process that requires compassion toward ourselves which often helps us extend greater compassion toward others.
One helpful way to work through our experiences of fear or stress is meditation or prayer. Participating in exercises that reinforce a sense of connection to transcendence can be very empowering while also activating the restorative nervous system functions. Consider the following method of reviewing your day as an option as you assume a comfortable posture in a quiet area and breath slowly and deeply - inhaling through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth:
1. Mindfulness: Ask for guidance and set the intention to review the events of your day objectively.
2. Gratitude: Express gratitude for whatever comes to mind.
3. Reflection: Reflect on the events of the day and pay close attention to your emotions. When were you joyful, excited, bored or angry? When were you feeling fearful or stressed? What were the triggers for those feelings? How did you respond?
4. Contemplation: Choose a one or two strong emotions. Practice compassion for yourself and consider ways you would prefer to respond in an effort to move toward a sense of inner calm/peace and improve your relationships.
5. Hopefulness: Look forward to the next day. What do you have coming up and how do you feel about it? Consider why you feel this way and ask for/set the intention to move toward a greater sense and capacity for peacefulness. End with more gratitude.
1. Make an effort to sleep 7-9 hours/night. Getting enough rest reduces cortisol levels and therefore minimizes its detrimental effects. It also reduces the risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
2. Eat a whole foods diet and exercise regularly. With a strong foundation of healthy nutrition and physical activity, it is easier to balance hormones related to stress and maintain physical, mental and emotional stability.
3. Spend time in nature. Exposure to natural environments has been found to reduce stress and promote well-being. It has been shown that time in nature can improve memory and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Spending time outdoors with loved ones would offer additional benefits in a sense of well-being. If you are unable to get outside regularly, can also bring some nature indoors. House plants and window views to natural scenery can bring a sense of calm.
4. Practice kindness toward yourself and others daily. These can be random or planned but no matter how small, kind acts can minimize negative emotions and help maintain a higher level of positive emotions.
Having a supportive community to share concerns with makes a big difference in how well one is able to manage stress. Hugging promotes to production of oxytocin, a hormone that reduces cortisol levels and heart rate. It is also associated to bonding behavior. Being involved in local community politics or charity endeavors also fosters a sense of control regarding your environment and this can reduce feelings of fear and the physiological changes that accompany it.
There will always be concerning events in our world and private lives. Fear can be a friend that helps us survive threats to our safety. To combat prolonged fear and stress responses, however, we can follow the advice of Mahatma Gandhi who said – “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” Contributing to our environment (both internal and external), is a powerful way to take control of our lives and contribute positively to the lives of our neighbors, both near and far.
Dr. Adeola Mead, ND is Natural Choice Network’s Healthy Living Content Consultant. She is a Bastyr University graduate and is based in Seattle. Dr. Mead is passionate about using natural medicine education as a powerful healing tool for both individuals & communities.