The physical impact of fear

My talk at the copywriting conference was mostly about fear. God, I hate fear, and its buddies, dread and panic. Is there anything that feels worse? Maybe only guilt and grief. Horrible, treacly feelings that shut you inside your body.

Don’t get me wrong; fear can be useful. It can be life-saving. But when you’re feeling it for the wrong reason, or too hard, or too often, that’s not useful.

Hi, not-a-therapist here. Not a doctor. I’m the unfortunate kind of expert: just a person who’s got insider knowledge of a shitty condition. As a reader and a researcher and an obsessive and a strategist, this is what I know about fear and how we can try to manage it.

Remember: nothing is true for everyone.

How fear works

The physical sensations of fear

We’re told that stress can have a long-term impact on our health but I don’t think we HEAR it. Until you’ve had a panic attack, you can’t really appreciate the complex physical manifestations of anxiety. It was astounding to me that my brain could make physical things happen in my body – but, LOL, of course it can. It’s doing it all the time.

We know what ‘nervous’ or ‘worried’ feels like. But we don’t give it the respect it deserves. Each of the physical sensations of anxiety is because of a step in our body’s reaction to fear.

Here’s why fear does what it does to us:

  1. Dizziness: oxygen leaves the brain to head off to more important parts of the body in readiness for fighting.
  2. Blurred sight: our pupils dilate to let in more light, so we improve our night vision.
  3. Dry mouth: we produce less saliva and gastric juices, so energy can be used for fighting.
  4. Choking sensation or ‘a lump in your throat’: muscles in the neck tighten to protect it from damage and we try to breathe faster to get more oxygen to the muscles.
  5. Rapid heartbeat: our heart pumps blood and oxygen to organs and muscles faster, so we can move quickly.
  6. Tightness or pain in the chest: more muscle tension because of the rapid breathing.
  7. Numbness: an interesting one. Numbness may be caused by oxygen leaving the skin’s surface to reduce bleeding in a fight and redistribute it to more vital areas, but it can also be because of hyperventilation leaving less carbon dioxide in the blood.
  8. Feeling sick or having butterflies in your stomach: as your liver releases glucose (because your body is burning through sugars) and blood travels away from the gut to key fight-or-flight areas, the stomach’s sensory nerves create fluttery or sicky feelings.
  9. Shaking: that fast munching of available glucose and increased adrenaline flowing can cause your hands to shake.
  10. Sweating: this one’s fascinating, too. Your body is hot and flushed because adrenaline makes your blood vessels dilate to let blood move around more quickly. So, you start to sweat to cool down. But that means you also become more difficult to grab hold of and give off more odour as a warning to the aggressor. We’re just animals, man.
  11. Heavy legs: ironically, this is because increased muscle tension lets you move more quickly.

Do you see? Fear is EXHAUSTING and harmful to your body when it’s out of control. For people with diabetes, immune system issues or any number of other conditions, stress is actually dangerous. We need to recognise and respect these signals from our body that things aren’t OK.

Techniques for combating fear from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Because this is a physical process in our bodies, we need to take notice of what happens to us when we’re anxious and address that physically, too.

Something I didn’t like about CBT when I first tried it was that it’s quite mind over matter. Like, JUST DECIDE NOT TO BE ANXIOUS. Huh?

I still don’t see CBT as a stand-alone therapy (one surely needs to get to the bottom of why one experiences fear in this harmful way, as well as treat the symptoms), but it does have useful tricks that can make our bodies stop reacting to fear, which then makes our brain stop alerting and triggering all these tiring processes.


  • Distract your silly brain by swapping environments: run up- or downstairs and get into a different space
  • Do some stretches, dance or go for a run, to get back into your body and fool it into focusing on a different physical process


  • Sit up straight, move your feet on the floor
  • Shoulders back and down, chin up
  • Change your facial expression: unclench your jaw, raise your eyebrows, relax your face and smile
  • Force yourself to breathe deeply and slowly


  • Go outside and touch some trees
  • Write down what you’re feeling
  • Talk – moan to someone or say nice things to yourself and others

I know. Obvious. But obvious shit doesn’t work if you don’t do it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is about understanding your patterns and establishing better ones.

I struggle to force myself to do my POSITIVE cycle when I’m triggered by something. I’m panicking, so my brain doesn’t want to focus on the clear, sensible tactics I have for feeling better.

Make it easy for yourself. Draw or write out your steps for dealing with anxiety. Then, when you’re feeling shut in your body, all you need to do is look at that process. Minimal thinking required.

I’ll say it again: this stuff isn’t instead of counselling if you’re suffering with anxiety. These are techniques to deal with the immediate physical symptoms of stress – they won’t stop your brain doing this in the long term.

What they can do is give you a bit more agency when your body goes into autopilot. It’s horrible, feeling trapped within your body as it tenses up for a fight. Go make your plan for next time it happens. Let’s meet this fucker where it lives and tell it NOT TODAY, SATAN.

Am I right? Tell me!

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