What Is Fear?

Feeling frightened when you watch a horror movie is normal. Feeling suddenly scared by an out-of-the-blue sense of unfounded dread is not. What you’re experiencing might be a panic attack.

What Is Fear?

Nobody really likes living with fear. In fact, it’s defined as, “A very unpleasant or disturbing feeling caused by the presence or imminence of danger.”

Fear may be distasteful, but it’s an important emotion, nonetheless. It’s there to keep you safe. When a situation is perceived to be dangerous, your body reacts accordingly. Your adrenaline level surges, your heart rate increases and your muscles tense. There may not actually be any danger, but in case there is, your brain is immediately getting your body ready to deal with it.

Survival depends on fear. If it weren’t for fear, you wouldn’t avoid poisonous snakes or the edge of a cliff. By staying unreasonably placid in the face of very real danger, you wouldn’t make the necessary changes to avoid or resist the oncoming threat to your safety.

When Is Fear Too Much?

In response to a threat, fear is vital. Even when the threat is merely perceived—such as the branch tapping on the window that you mistake for an intruder—fear is good and normal. The problem arises when your fear strikes out of nowhere and with seemingly no trigger. When this happens, you may be experiencing a panic attack.

Panic attacks may last for around 10 minutes or even longer. With a panic attack comes an overwhelming sensation of something terrible, even if there is no real danger. Along with a strong feeling of fear or dread, they may also be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, pain, a racing heart or sweating.

A person who suffers from repeat panic attacks may be dealing with a panic disorder. Panic disorders can be crippling, as the sufferer is not only experiencing the unpleasant sensations of recurring panic attacks, but may also be consumed with worry about when the next one will strike. He or she might avoid places or situations for fear of having an attack there.

How Is a Panic Disorder Treated?

If you think you may be suffering from a panic disorder, consult a medical professional. Your doctor might recommend therapy or medication, or even a combination of the two.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is often used as a method of helping patients take control of their panic disorder by modifying their behaviors and their thought processes. CBT has been shown to reduce both the intensity and frequency of panic attacks. The therapy might not be take immediate effect, but results are often seen after four to 15 sessions.

Another treatment option, to be used with CBT or on its own, is medication. Antidepressants, such as SSRIs, have been shown to be quite effective in relieving symptoms and restoring quality of life. As with CBT, it can take some time for the benefits of antidepressants to take effect. If relief is needed in the short term, doctors may prescribe another types of medication called benzodiazepines, but these are not usually the best choice for long-term treatment.

Panic attacks are more than just unpleasant and scary; their presence can undermine your quality of life and make it hard to function. If sudden bouts of fear are causing both emotional and physical symptoms, it’s time to see a doctor for relief.