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Understanding feelings of fear

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Fear is an emotion that everyone experiences. It’s a common response when you feel threatened. It isn’t a sign of weakness or cowardice. You might experience fear in different ways or use different words to describe the emotion. For example, you might feel mild anxiety about an upcoming specific event or situation, a jolt of fear in response to an unexpected loud noise, fear or worry about the future, or an overwhelming feeling of panic or terror.

When you’re afraid, you may notice your breathing and heart rate increase, and you may feel restless or jumpy. Sometimes your mind can race with thoughts about what is going wrong, or what you can do to be safe. These reactions are part of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. This is a survival instinct to keep you alert and help you confront the challenge, escape it, or hide until it goes away. 

On this page, you'll find services that can help you with what you're going through, plus helpful information around understanding and managing fear.

Are you or someone else in danger?

If you or someone around you is at risk of harm, try to leave the situation safely and seek help immediately. Below are free, confidential counselling and support lines available 24/7.

Call: 
•   000 (if it’s an emergency)
•   131 114 (Lifeline)
•   1800 737 732 (1800RESPECT)

Services that can help

If you need some support, or aren't sure where to start, there are a few options available:

  • Try the Head to Health quiz. It can help you understand what you're experiencing and point you to suitable services and resources.
  • Call Head to Health for free on 1800 595 212 for mental health guidance and advice.
  • Try one of the services listed below. There is a wide range of options, no matter the kind of support you’re looking for. You can pick what suits you best.
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What causes fear

You can be afraid of a wide range of different things. Many of these fears are rational and are likely fears that most people would have. Common fears are a fear of heights, storms, or wild animals. 

You will fear things that make you feel unsafe or unsure. Someone learning how to swim may be afraid of the water at first. But as they practise and develop more skills, they’re likely to overcome this fear.

You may also have past experiences that can trigger feelings of fear because of the memories attached to them. For example, if you were in a serious road accident, you may feel more scared and nervous for a time while driving. Usually, this fear lessens the more time you spend driving and staying safe.

Feeling afraid when there is no danger

The 'fight, flight or freeze’ response that happens alongside feeling fear is an instinct built into your body to respond to a perceived threat. This instinct happens faster than what you can think through, so sometimes fear can be triggered when there isn’t any real danger. Once you've had time to process the situation and find there is no danger, the fear usually fades away. 

When does fear become a problem?

Fear is a useful emotion: it protects you, alerts you to danger, and helps you take action to stay safe when needed. 

Feeling afraid can be uncomfortable, but it usually passes when the source of your fear is gone, or you realise the situation isn’t dangerous after all. But when you start to feel afraid more often, or in more situations, it can start to become a problem. 

Fear may start off impacting your life in small ways, like prompting you to say no to activities you used to enjoy. Over time, this can lead to more avoidance of people, places, and situations that you start to associate with fear. 

This type of fear is unhealthy because it stops you from enjoying your life and achieving your goals. It can impact your ability to participate in and enjoy school, work or social activities. It can also lead to other physical and mental health issues if not managed effectively.

Is it fear, anxiety, or something else?

If your feelings of fear have lasted a while, or are constant, overwhelming or unpredictable, it may be related to a mental health condition such as an anxiety disorder. If you have experienced a traumatic event or trauma over a period of time, such as during childhood, you may find it hard to trust others, take risks, or see the world as a safe place. These fears may be a sign of a trauma- or stressor-related disorder

Learn more about mental health conditions and disorders.

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Reaching out for help

If you're concerned that your fear might be a sign of something more serious, or you’re finding it hard to manage, talk to your GP. If you don’t have one, you can use our Find a GP tool.

How to manage fear

Finding ways to improve and look after your wellbeing will help you to manage your anxiety and fear over the long term. But if you feel fear taking hold, there are some simple steps you can take to try and manage it.

Learning about how fear works can help you make sense of what happens when you’re afraid. It can also be helpful to notice the times when you experience fear and if there are patterns to it. Maybe it happens more often when you are tired or hungry, or when you think others are judging you, or when you are worried about making a mistake.

When you’re afraid, try asking yourself:

  • Is this fear reasonable?
  • Am I making assumptions that are adding to my fear?
  • Is there a different or more helpful way to view this situation?
     

Facing your fears can be scary, but avoiding them can make them worse. For many types of fears, exposing yourself to the source gradually, in a safe environment, can help you to overcome the fear over time. It can be a good idea to have someone you trust or a professional help you through this process.

If you’re comfortable doing it, talking to someone can be a great way to feel safer and more supported. Telling someone about what you’re afraid of can help you process your feelings. They may also be able to support you when you start to face your fears. We have helpful tips on how to start the conversation.

Taking time out to do some breathing exercises or meditation can help you to slow down or turn off the fear response after it has been activated. This can give you a clearer perspective on the situation. Practising these strategies when you are feeling calm also makes it easier to use them in times of stress or fear.

When you’re afraid or stressed, your body becomes filled with energy to help you take action. Physical activity provides an outlet for this energy. Taking a few minutes to stretch, walk, do star jumps, walk a flight of stairs, or go for a run can be an effective way to release the tension that comes with fear and stress. There are many different ways to stay active.

You can't control everything that happens in your life, but there are things you can do to get through tough times. Learn more about coping with unexpected life events.

Supporting someone else

It can be hard seeing someone you care about going through a tough time. If you're worried that their fears are beginning to seriously impact their life, it's important to check in and see how they're doing. If you're not sure how to do that, we have useful tips on practical things you can do to support someone.

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Helping children with fear

Fear, anxiety, and worry are normal for children from when they’re born and through their development. Children can share many of the same fears as adults, but often fear situations or objects that adults usually don’t. Common fears for children include being alone, the dark, imaginary monsters, loud or unfamiliar noises, and medical visits.

A key part of being a parent or guardian is teaching children when they should be cautious to help keep them safe. Helping your child understand that fear is normal and teaching them how to manage their fears is important. It helps them build confidence in their ability to cope with challenging situations as they grow up. 

Here are some steps you can take to help a child when they’re afraid:

  • Take their feelings seriously and help them to talk about what they’re afraid of. Asking specific questions can help. For example, if a child is scared of thunder, you can ask them, “What makes thunder scary?” Once you know more about what your child is afraid of, you will have a clearer idea of how to help them.
  • Let them know you will work with them to help them feel braver or less scared. Ask them what would help them feel safer and give them control in taking those steps.
  • Give them the opportunity to face their fears at their own pace and with your support.
  • If their fear is related to a difficult topic, talk about it openly, and answer any questions honestly.
     
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Looking for more information and services?

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