Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.
Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.
Fear is a powerful but normal human emotion that is useful in surviving physical danger.
Anxiety too can help us anticipate challenges and be prepared for them.
Fear and anxiety, when excessive and inappropriate can result in challenges to our mental wellbeing.
What is fear and how does it affect our physical and mental wellbeing?
Fear is a physical and emotional response to a real or perceived threat.
Fear triggers the flight or fright response that is meant to enable us to fight and eliminate the threat that is endangering us or alternatively to be able to run for our lives.
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Anxiety is another normal human emotion that helps us to prepare for anticipated threats that may befall us.
Both fear and anxiety can help us adapt and cope with the challenges life brings us.
However, when our fear and anxiety are excessive and out of proportion compared to the perceived risk to our safety we can develop anxiety related disorders.
Fear and anxiety can result in challenges in the way we think, the way we experience emotions and in the way we behave.
When we are excessively fearful, we may worry uncontrollably, become constantly apprehensive, always thinking about the worst-case scenarios, the intense fear may affect our ability to focus and concentrate and we may find ourselves feeling absent minded and forgetful.
Excessive fear will make us experience constant dread, a feeling of being overwhelmed and often feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.
If the ‘flight or fight’ responses are excessively triggered we may actually become numb and frazzled, we may start to avoid work or school or other responsibilities or we may become excessively agitated and take out our frustrations on those around us.
Fear can result in variety of physical symptoms including dizziness, frequent headaches, profuse sweating, poor appetite, tense muscles resulting in neck, shoulder and back pain, heart palpitations, chest pain and heaviness, nausea, abdominal pain and sometimes diarrhoea.
Types of fear and anxiety related mental health problems
Excessive fear can make us sick. Fear often manifests itself in anxiety related disorders including:
Panic attacks are sudden episodes of intense fear with severe physical fear reactions where there is no actual danger or apparent cause for the distress.
The symptoms are often severe enough to cause one to rush to the emergency room or hospital in fear that one’s life may be in imminent danger.
Generalised anxiety disorder is a chronic, constant fear and worry about everyday life that is difficult to control, being worried and excessively fearful about everyday things and worry which is not in keeping with any identifiable threat or danger.
Phobias are excessive and irrational fears of specific objects like spiders or blood or dogs or specific activities like flying or speaking in public or specific situations such as small spaces or public transport.
Although the object, activity or situation may pose little or no actual danger, the person experiencing the phobia can be crippled with fear and may do all they can to avoid the object or situation.
Anxiety disorders, though not life threatening can be very disabling as they limit one’s ability to live fully, work effectively and make a meaningful contribution to their family and community.
This disability is often invisible and is endured secretly, seriously affecting the quality of life of the person struggling with anxiety.
What can we do as a society and as a nation to address invisible disabilities like anxiety disorders?
- Raise awareness about anxiety disorders and other mental health challenges and the impact mental health problems can have on one’s ability to function.
- This awareness needs to be at individual level, in communities, workplaces, schools and policy maker level to help change attitudes and practices concerning mental health and wellbeing.
- Improved knowledge and awareness is also a key strategy in addressing stigma which is one of the major barriers to getting help.
- Ensure policies that accommodate for mental health related challenges, allowing for appropriate medical leave time if and when required, adequate medical insurance coverage to ensure appropriate care can be accessed and reasonable accommodations as is done for more visible health problems.
- Invest in a decentralised, integrated mental health system where mental health care is available at all levels of the health care system.
Improved accessibility to appropriate, affordable care will help those who need treatment for common mental health problems get the help they need, reduce their disability and improve their functionality.
If you think that you or someone that you know may be struggling with a fear or anxiety related mental health problem, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.
- Dr. Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback: Whatsapp: +263714987729