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What is fear and can breathing help you overcome it?

August 3rd, 2021,

4 min read

What is fear and can breathing help you overcome it?featured image

Fear affects many of us. A fear or anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness, and around 31% of all adults will experience this type of disorder at some point in their life*. What exactly is fear and why do we experience it? How can your breathing help you take control over your fear? We asked these questions to moonbird's clinical psychologist, Karen Borremans.

What exactly is fear?

Karen: “Fear is a human, primal emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat. Fear helped our ancestors survive and ensured that humans have been able to continue to exist. The hunter-gatherer mind was, in fact, a mechanism that focused on not to be killed, and prepared the body for danger when it arose.

Fear and anxiety cause our stress system to wake up and our bodies to mentally and physically prepare for action, through the fight or flight response. However, it is important that fear is proportionate to the situation. It can make us modify our behavior, but it should not be paralyzing.”

What is the difference between fear and anxiety?

“Fear and anxiety are often mentioned together, as they both produce a similar stress response. But these terms are not interchangeable. Even though symptoms commonly overlap, your experience with these emotions differs based on the context. Fear relates to a known or understood threat, whereas anxiety follows from an unknown, expected, or poorly defined threat.”

What are the symptoms of fear and anxiety?

“Physically we can notice the activation of our stress system by symptoms such as shortness of breath, headache, sweating and tensed muscles. Cognitively and emotionally you could experience an increased focus towards the source of  the threat, and towards certain thoughts or feelings. On a behavioral level you can find yourself being more irritable than usual or having trouble sleeping.”

What happens during an anxiety or panic attack?

“Sometimes your fear or anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it can lead to an anxiety attack. During such an attack, you feel taken over by an all-consuming fear, which is often accompanied by hyperventilation.

During a panic attack, it’s often difficult or even impossible to think clearly and rationally. Hyperventilation causes an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. In particular, your body is sensitive to exhaling too much carbon dioxide. Your blood acidity decreases and blood vessels, including those to the brain, narrow. This reduces the blood supply. Amongst other things, you start feeling dizzy, which in most cases reinforces your panic.”

What is best to do in case of a panic attack and hyperventilation?

“You often hear the advice to breathe into a bag  to counter hyperventilation, to restore the oxygen balance. This can definitely help, although the effectiveness of slow breathing exercises is more outspoken. Abdominal breathing can help you to relax. Here it is important to breathe slowly, but not too deeply.

It can be very difficult to calm yourself down with a breathing exercise when you are feeling anxious. Having someone that monitors your breathing rhythm can support you. The moonbird is a very useful tool to assist you with your breathing, so you can manage your fear independently. The device determines your breathing rhythm and can help you calm down. You can use it anytime, anywhere, whenever you need it.”

* Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2020

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