Your question: Why do I suddenly feel scared for no reason?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. All emotions are necessary, including annoying ones such as sadness, anger and fear. Fear is a primary emotion that allows you to be alert to external threats, and demands a reaction, either to run away from what terrifies you or to confront the problem. Although it is natural, fear can become a problem when it is too recurrent and intense, and if it occurs in random situations causing problems in your personal life.

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).

Fear always has an origin, although you may feel that nothing in particular is happening to make you feel terrified at a given moment. What happens is that sometimes it is difficult to connect with your emotions and understand their etiology. Emotions are not rational, they don’t ask you for permission to show up, and they don’t always make sense in a situation. In the same way that sometimes you feel sad or upset without an “apparent reason” happens with fear, in reality there is a reason, but you can’t find it because emotions cloud your judgment and ability to reason properly.

Where does your fear come from?

Psychology has shown that fear is a primal emotion that involves a universal biochemical response and a high individual emotional response. It generates physical and emotional reactions in your body. On the one hand, you sweat, tremble and your heart rate accelerates when you are frightened. Your body goes into a state of survival because there is a perceived threat, whether it is real or not.

This physical response is also known as the “fight or flight” response, with which your body prepares itself to either enter combat or run away. This is related to the biochemistry of the brain, which during the sensation of fear releases hormones and neurotransmitters that cause this imbalance in your body, generating the physical and emotional reactions.

When you are afraid you also panic and worry that something bad might happen, to you, to someone important or to the world in general. Fear has multiple causes and only becomes a problem when it is present in many areas of life and with great intensity, in that case, you can already speak of an anxiety disorder.

But the common fear that you experience in your daily life is not harmful in itself. Its origin may be due to a momentary concern, such as an approaching important exam, a tense conversation with a person or a work supervision. Fear activates tormenting thoughts that make you believe that the worst-case scenario is going to happen.

If you don’t find the specific cause that makes you feel fearful at a moment’s notice, you are probably overlooking your emotions and thoughts, and you need a guide to take a closer look at them.

How are fear and anxiety related?

These thoughts are dysfunctional, as they cause deep discomfort. They can be of all kinds. The person may suddenly imagine that a loved one is sick, that his boss will fire him from his job soon, that he will fail in college, that someone will break into his house to steal, or that someone will do something to him that will cause him physical pain. Even when there is no logical evidence to support these thoughts, you feel fear because again, emotions are not logical.

Therefore, by paying close attention to your fear-producing thoughts, you will be clear about which ones you need to work on and refute.

How can you identify the cause of your fear?

For this, you can use a technique called panic diary. This consists of keeping a record of every time you experience sudden fear in your daily life. In this diary you will write down the events related to the fear sensation, specifying where you were when it occurred, what activity you were doing, and with whom you were surrounded.

You may not find a common pattern and your fear may occur in random situations. In this case, the origin of the fear is in your dysfunctional thoughts and is related to anxiety. This happens because your mind creates terrifying scenarios spontaneously, and when they appear in your day, you feel inevitable fear, even if this thought is illogical or is not happening at the moment.

How can you stop being afraid?

You cannot stop feeling fear because it is a natural emotion, but you can control the unpleasant feelings associated with fear and decrease their intensity. When you have found the disturbing thoughts that generate fear in you, it is necessary that you learn to submit them to validity checks.

Every time the fear-generating thought pops into your mind, you should ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, how real is this thought? If the answer is less than a 5, the worry is probably illogical and unnecessary. You can accompany this with slow breathing exercises, inhaling and exhaling every 3 seconds when the fear crosses your mind and generates discomfort.

It may be difficult at first to apply these techniques, but eventually you will be able to notice the effects, which will decrease your fear levels in random situations, always focusing on working directly on the source of the emotion.

Other strategies

Writing down what you feel and think in a diary can be useful to channel it and feel that you are “letting it out” of your body. Physical exercise helps a lot to control anxiety and fear because it keeps you focused on a specific activity, generates distractions from everyday worries and helps you to create new social bonds.

In my experience…

Experiencing fear abruptly and without explanation is common, and you are not a coward because of it. Simply, it is certain that at this moment in your life you are dealing with many external pressures that you do not know how to manage correctly, and your body and mind are talking to you through fear to ask you to dedicate yourself and your mental health. It is also important to see a professional to help you find a more specific treatment for you if these strategies are not working for you. Cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective in treating different forms of anxiety and will give you more accurate tools to manage your emotions.

Remember that you have the ability to improve your psychological state, even if during moments of anxiety or depression you feel hopeless. You 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 you in the right direction.

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