Feeling Scared, Frightened, and Helpless
Written by: Bianca Villanueva – BS (Psychology)
Last updated date : December 16, 2022
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Everyone knows what it’s like to feel scared at some point in their life. In the face of thunder, bugs, rats, our parents, and even the dark, we feel frightened and helpless. When we see something, we’re fear; our hands shake, the hairs on our neck stand, and suddenly our senses are sharper. Despite knowing that there isn’t really anything to be afraid of, we still feel it. That feeling can be very hard to time, which is totally understandable.
The presence of “fear” as a basic emotion has helped humanity survive as long as we have. When we feel like there’s a threat, it can feel uncomfortable as we should. We shouldn’t feel comfortable in dangerous situations. We should avoid them. It’s a protective response from our brains, so we shouldn’t ignore it most of the time. So, when does it become a bad thing? Well, the uncomfortable feeling can get in the way of our normal activities. There comes the point when our fears are irrational rather than protective. However, it’s important to remember sometimes you need to stand up to your fears.
This article will focus on fears, phobias, and how to overcome them. We all know what it’s like to stop ourselves from doing something we want because we’re afraid. That’s normal. However, that shouldn’t get in the way of the things you want. So let’s get into it.
What Is Fear? What Is a Phobia?
On the other hand, fear can traumatize a person. When they feel very real threats to their health and life, it can cause a person to be averse to anything related to the event. This can turn into phobias. A phobia is an extreme and irrational fear of something. We say irrational, meaning people will take outrageous extents to avoid something they have a phobia towards. We say extreme, meaning the fear is out of proportion of normal. For example, many people are afraid of the dark. It’s normal to feel a chill when the lights go out. However, people with a fear of the dark can have anxiety attacks towards it.
Anxiety vs FearIn some ways, anxiety can feel like fear. These feelings can happen at the same time, but they’re not the same concept. Fear is a response to a threat. Meanwhile, anxiety is the feeling of uneasiness about what might happen. In a way, phobias are a form of anxiety. The fear of what might happen when we encounter our fears can be what stops us the most. However, fear can also encompass other aspects of something that makes it afraid of it. It can stem from a bad memory or even seeing someone else affected by it. At its worst, both can make anyone feel frightened and helpless.
What Happens When We Are Feeling Scared?
- Freeze. Similar to a deer in the headlights, surprises make us freeze in place. It’s as simple as a jump and stops. Some people freeze completely. For others, it’s only for a second. It’s a response in our system that tells us that we need to stop and be alert for any threats.
- Run. After the freeze, we want to avoid whatever the threat is. The adrenaline rush kicks in so that you can run faster and longer.
- Fight. When you can’t get away from the threat, your only other option is to face it head-on. It takes a particular amount of courage to do this. That’s why it is also a tough stage. Adrenaline can also kick in in this stage to heighten your senses if there is a need to fight.
Not everyone goes through all these stages every time they are frightened and helpless. Some people go straight to the 3rd stage. Others might skip the 1st stage. In any of these stages, the symptoms of fear can kick in. What are these symptoms?
Symptoms of Fear
- Chest pain
- Dry mouth
- Nausea (and sometimes vomiting)
- Fast heartbeat
- Difficulty breathing
Emotionally, fears can be so intense that they can cause:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling frightened and helpless
- Feeling out of control
- A sense of impending doom
It can seem like these are symptoms of a heart attack, but it’s common for anxiety attacks to feel like one. Sometimes people mistake panic attacks for heart attacks. Either way, these symptoms may need you to consult a doctor.
Why Am I Feeling Scared?
So, we ask the question, why are some people afraid of some things, others not so much? Where do these specific fears come from? The causes of fear are broad, but here are some possible reasons why we feel frightened and helpless sometimes.
Past EventsCertain events can lead to the creation of fear. For example, if you got into an accident before, you might find it scary to enter a car again. This is even after considering that cars are relatively safe ways to travel. These past events are enough to make you consider the worst-case scenario happening. It makes you think that if it happened once, it could happen again, no matter how many precautions you take.
Feeling Scared as KidYour formative years are the most important years of our lives, and most of us don’t even realize it. Much of our early life experiences influence our later years as adults. For example, when your parents were the anxious or scared type, it’s likely you’d grow up the same way. The fears of parents can also transfer to their children. When you grow up being told to fear strangers, without any exceptions, you might find yourself scared of talking to people in general. A lot of the time, fears are taught.
Reactions Towards Panic AttacksWhen you have panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder, you might also have a fear of situations similar to when your panic attacks happen. For example, if you have a panic attack while crossing a bridge, you’ll want to avoid passing through that bridge, even if it means taking a long way around. Some people even have a fear of crowds because they don’t want to have a panic attack around other people. Basically, panic attacks can make you associate attacks with otherwise harmless situations and places.
Long-term StressStress can cause anxiety and depression. It’s easy to feel frightened and helpless in the face of stressors that just won’t stop. When you’re stressed, it gets harder to cope with anything that comes next. Why? That’s because when you’re overloaded, it’s hard to process anything more than that. People are more sensitive when they’re stressed, so it makes sense that you would be more easily affected by unpleasant events. For example, you’re driving, and someone hits your car from the back. This wouldn’t be the first time, and the last time it happened, it was resolved quickly. However, since it happened while you were stressed, it affected you a lot more. You found yourself crying and shaking from an otherwise “normal” experience. Eventually, driving makes you feel scared, and you stop driving completely.
Associated Unpleasant EventsSometimes it’s not the fear itself but the events surrounding it that makes it scary. Let’s imagine the experiment done involving a baby named Little Albert and a white rat. While rats would make many adults cower in fear, 9-month-old Little Albert isn’t scared of them. However, Little Albert has a fear of loud noises to the point he bursts into tears. Because of this, the scientists decide to test their theory about fear. They pair the presence of the white rat with a loud noise behind his head. At first, he only reacts to the noise. However, after some time, simply the presence of the white rat makes him cry. What was the point of the experiment?
It proves that conditioning can also work with fears. What does this mean for you? Well, it means that being uncomfortable or feeling scared of something might make you scared of other things related to the event. Let’s have a more real-life example. You enjoy visiting your grandma’s house. However, you’re scared of dogs, and your grandma just bought a new puppy. Suddenly, grandma’s house seems scarier because there’s a dog there. Eventually, you’ll find that, even when the puppy isn’t at home, just being in grandma’s house makes your heart beat faster, and you start sweating more. You’ve learned to be afraid of something that used to be fun because it’s associated with something scary.
Not all fears have to be something you experienced. An experiment was done showing kids faces of people in reaction to seeing animals. Apparently, when subjects report being more scared of animals paired with scared faces compared to those not paired with faces. What does this mean? It means that kids learn fears from others. They empathize with others, and they think that if someone’s afraid of an animal, they should be afraid too.
Another example would be seeing someone else get scolded by the teacher. Although the teacher never did anything to you, you still feel scared of them. Even if that teacher is nice to you the rest of the year, you might still find yourself afraid of them. Why? That’s because of vicarious learning. This means we learn by observing someone else. Even just watching the news of something that never happened to you can give you a new fear because of how frightened and helpless you might feel.
Why Is Feeling Scared a Problem?
You also know it’s a problem when it affects your daily life and relationships. If your fear makes it hard for you to walk out your front door, meet with friends, work, or do anything that you want to do, that’s a problem. Why? That’s because it might develop into a full-blown anxiety disorder if you don’t address your fears. So, what can you do?