Your question: Why do I get scared easily?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Fear is a natural response to a real or imaginary threat that triggers a complex symptomatology in people. It is inevitable to feel fear, because it is a necessary emotion. However, sometimes you feel that the sensation of fear is annoying and disturbing because it appears suddenly, at the slightest provocation.

Research has shown that the startle reaction is common in chronic anxiety problems, and is related to the constant overstimulation of the brain during anxiety states. It has been shown that the startle reaction and the constant feeling of fear caused by anxiety generates a deep emotional discomfort in people (1).

Some people are more sensitive and tend to be startled by any stimulus. For many, it is not necessary to watch a horror movie or go through a terrifying situation, as they experience intense fear in minimal or everyday situations. You probably wonder why your body reacts this way.

How does fear work in your brain?

Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of hormones and neurotransmitters that cause racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as the fight-or-flight response. 

The amygdala, a tiny organ located at the back of your skull, is in charge of regulating the emotion of fear. The amygdala sends a response to your body that there is a threat and then, the startle occurs, and with it, a number of undesirable symptoms. Emotionally, fear generates a severe worry that you will come to harm, and this happens even if the “threat” in question is harmless or imaginary.

How is your experience with fear?

In my experience as a psychologist, I have come to understand that people have unique ways of expressing universal feelings. We all feel fear, sadness and joy, but we do not express it in the same way. Therefore, before you think about how to change the feeling of constant startle and fear, you must learn to accept fear as part of your life, and that you have a unique way of expressing it.

There are several reasons why a person tends to startle at the slightest provocation. Hyperstimulation is one of the causes mainly associated with the sensation of fear and startle. Your brain constantly releases neurotransmitters responsible for managing your emotions.

In some people, the nervous system is overstimulated, which causes the brain to constantly feed sensory information to your body so that it overreacts to external stimuli regardless of the magnitude. This is why you startle at little things, feel sensitive and irritable, loud annoying noises make you scream, and in general, you are constantly in a state of paranoia.

As stimulation increases, so does the sensitivity and reactivity of the nervous system. This imbalance can make a person feel that they must be constantly alert, ready for anything to cause a startle. Hypersensitivity is associated with anxiety problems that have worsened over time. While it is not a medical problem per se, it is quite upsetting to the person experiencing it. Fortunately, there are ways to address the constant fear and sense of startle.

How can you stop being afraid all the time?

Identifying the cause of your spontaneous, recurring fear can be tricky, and require the help of a mental health professional. However, here are a number of strategies you can implement in your day-to-day life to help decrease the feeling of hypervigilance and anxiety related to fear and recurrent startles.

Decrease caffeine

When you drink coffee or caffeinated beverages all the time, you tend to be hyperstimulated. This chemical stimulates the brain and keeps it in a constant state of wakefulness waiting for a jolt, so reducing the levels you consume on a daily basis will help.

Regulate your sleep schedule

Insomnia is a common cause of excessive fear and startle. If you have trouble sleeping, you may also feel easily overstimulated at any time of the day. Studies have shown that people with insomnia are overstimulated during the time they are trying to fall asleep. These people are exhausted but cannot calm their body or mind, so they constantly feel anxious and worried, waiting for the slightest noise to startle them.

Breathing and relaxation exercises

Diaphragmatic breathing is useful, and should be practiced regularly during different times of the day to train your body and mind to enter a state of relaxation, thus decreasing hypersensitivity. Inhale and exhale calmly, at six-second intervals, with eyes closed in a relaxing space. Practicing these exercises for at least 20 minutes a day helps to decrease the general symptoms of anxiety and with it, the feeling of constant fear.

In my experience…

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression we feel hopeless. We can always make small changes that will pay off in the long run. The fact that you are contacting me to seek professional attention in psychological counseling is already a step, and I recognize and applaud you for that. You are already doing something and wanting to change always leads us in the right direction.

I invite you to seek professional help when you feel that even applying these suggestions, your situation does not improve. Cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in treating different forms of anxiety and will give you more accurate tools to manage your emotions. 

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