The fear of fear can be crippling. That may sound like a bizarre statement, but often those experiencing fear cannot pinpoint a specific object. They do not have something concrete to be scared of, but are almost randomly fearful. This becomes terrifying because, having no concrete cause, the fear cannot be avoided and may strike at any time.
Heart pounding, mouth dry, vision wobbly, chest tight, breathlessness, hot and cold sweats, and a feeling of being dizzy or about to lose consciousness… When these fearful symptoms escalate into a panic attack, it is not unusual for the person to feel as though they may be dying.
Increasingly, the person who has experienced these symptoms becomes so scared of them that even a slight prickle of adrenalin brings on a rush of fear that precipitates another attack. The irrational and untargeted nature of the symptoms means that they feel out of control, unable to take positive action to avert the possibility of another bout of panic.
What they often do not realise, and are thrilled to learn, is that many of these symptoms are brought about by physical factors, such as diet and lifestyle choices, which can be changed to bring relief from everything from mild unease to intense fear.
That is, of course, except where there is a good reason for the fear: it is not a good idea to be totally chilled in the face of stampeding cattle or mad dogs… These dangerous situations are what adrenalin is designed to help us out of.
Yes, adrenalin – a chemical released from the adrenal glands in response to a threat to the person to whom those adrenal glands belong! Adrenalin activates a ‘Red Alert’ in the body, sending blood coursing to the heart and lungs to enable you to run or fight better; it opens up sweat glands so that you don’t overheat doing that running or fighting; it liberates stored sugar from the tissues to power the muscles; and it causes the heart to beat faster to pump oxygen around the body. For a moment there you could box with Rocky, but your body can’t keep this up and as adrenalin levels fall again, reaction sets in. Your muscles feel weak and shaky, your heart beats irregularly, you feel breathless, dizzy, damp and sweaty and unable to co-ordinate.
Now, this adrenalin business is great if faced with the aforementioned mad dog (or boss), as it will get you away from the danger or power your leap to a place of safety. It is, however, the release of adrenalin in response to non-threatening physical factors that causes the panic symptoms that ruin lives.
- Caffeine intake
- Nicotine intake
- Alcohol intake
- Refined sugar intake
- Low blood sugar
(to mention the most common)
Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine will stimulate the release of adrenalin. If they are taking a substantial place in your daily life (which is particularly likely with caffeine), the adrenal glands can become very sensitive and jumpy.
If you take vast quantities of sugar, the body tries to deal with it by tucking it all away quickly into the tissues. Thus the amount of sugar in the bloodstream falls, and adrenalin is released to push blood sugar levels up again. Not only will you feel panicky but also your energy levels will fluctuate madly. If lots of this sugar is accounted for in your large intake of coffee, prepare for the negative effect to be doubled…
Blood sugar levels can also drop if you haven’t eaten within the last few hours. Women are especially guilty of this, going for long periods of time without eating and then wondering why they feel so nervy, jumping at shadows and craving sugary foods.
Dehydration is possibly one of the most common factors. If you are dehydrated you will experience a dry mouth and palpitations, and think that you are fearful. Many patients tell me that they no longer wake up at night with palpitations once they are drinking the regulation 1.5 litres of still water daily, and cutting out the coffee (which has a dehydrating effect).
The nutrients that your nervous system needs to make it more resistant to panic are magnesium and vitamin B.
Some herbs that help your nervous system to relax and stay calm are Avena sativa, Passiflora, and Valerian.
Avena sativa is made from oat seed, containing nutrients that stabilise the nervous system and components that relax smooth muscle. It is a very gentle remedy that can be given to children (over the age of 2) as well as adults, and can be taken over a long period of time if necessary. It works well for ongoing stresses and won’t put you to sleep if you need to be alert. As with all the herbs discussed here, it is non-addictive, so even if you take it for a long time you will not become dependent on it.
Passiflora is slightly stronger and is a good choice for averting panic attacks because it releases tension from the muscles as well as calming the nervous system. It often improves the quality of sleep, which has the beneficial knock-on effect of reducing the severity of fear symptoms.
Valerian is not suitable for children but can be taken long or short term by adults. It probably works the fastest of these herbs and will soothe both mind and muscles without creating drowsy side effects.
Another remedy to think about is Emergency Essence or Rescue Remedy, suitable to take at any time, and easy to administer because it comes in a dropper bottle – the drops can be taken under the tongue at the first sign of fear, and counteract the emotional build-up to an attack.
Take a deep breath, put down the coffee, pick up the herbs and forget the fear.
Some hints to get you started
- Drink more water and less coffee and other caffeinated drinks
- Cut down nicotine and alcohol intake
- Eat regularly and try not to overdo the refined sugar (this is easier if you are eating every three to four hours, as your blood sugar levels don’t drop and thus you don’t get sugar cravings)
- Practice breathing deeply and slowly, or take a yoga or relaxation class that teaches you to control your breathing more effectively
- Instead of all those caffeinated drinks, turn to herbal teas such as chamomile, lemon balm and lemon verbena, which will calm your nerves whilst clearing your mind