Fear and mental health
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CONSIDERING that Halloween just passed, I thought I’d write about a topic that I spoke about with many over the weekend. We spoke about fear in many aspects. I spoke to some foreigners telling me about their ‘trick or treating’ days as children. This is an activity where you walk around neighbourhoods, knock on doors and receive candy, something not commonly practised in Guyana. I had conversations about the fear that comes with Halloween movies and some phobias triggered by certain costumes.

It made me think a little deeper about fear and mental health. I’ve always liked and disliked Halloween; I like to scare people but don’t like to be scared. I like the candy but my body doesn’t like the candy. I like seeing the costumes but I don’t like getting dressed up. I love horror movies but can’t sleep for days after watching them. It’s always been a toss-up. However, as I got older and more interested and educated in the field of Mental Health, I started looking at almost everything, including Halloween, differently.

I think about those suffering from mental health issues that see insulting costumes. I think about how individuals with anxiety and panic disorders must feel. I think about how some individuals see others having fun and can’t understand why they can’t feel the same. I guess it could take the fun out of it, but these acknowledgements can also allow us to be more sensitive, supportive, and well-rounded individuals.

Now, let’s talk about fear for a second.
Fear is a completely normal human emotion. It is usually triggered by threats and is what allows for basic human survival instincts. This essentially means that healthy levels of fear keep us safe. However, constantly living in fear- which, sadly, many Guyanese do- results in major harm to our overall well-being.

We live in a society with a high crime (robberies, sexual assault, homicides, etc.) rate. This can cause people to develop high anxiety and phobias of experiencing these events. For example, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never been robbed, but still, I’m always very aware of my surroundings and most of the time, uncomfortable when walking alone at night.

This is not rare or unhealthy, as I’m sure many people who have never been robbed feel this way. However, constant worry and fear and their effects are numerous. It can cause physical issues such as impaired memory, cardiovascular damage, breathing problems, stomach issues such as ulcers and just generally weakens our immune system. It can cause mental health issues such as high anxiety and stress, fatigue, disturbances in both eating and sleeping patterns, depression, and even thoughts of hopelessness and suicide. The worst part? These harms come whether the threat is real or simply just perceived by the individual.

My occasional disapproval of Halloween also exists as it’s an opportunity to exploit other people’s fear. There are only a few things that I dislike more than this. I’ve always feared insects or amphibians such as cockroaches or frogs. Many times, both during my childhood and quite recently, people would purposely push me into a corner with these creatures for their enjoyment. It’s not funny but rather cruel to exploit others’ genuine fear for a laugh! Halloween is basically this on a larger scale. While some really enjoy it, others really fear it.

Now, what can we do to manage our fear?
In most cases, fear diminishes with age, for example, fear of the dark or ghosts/monsters. I remember being terribly afraid of both until the late age of about 15. Thankfully, I’ve grown out of that! For those that haven’t grown out of their childhood fears- that’s completely okay but there are ways to overcome them.

Fear may come from many different things such as stigma, experience, fear of judgement, or feelings of lack of control, etc. The realisation that there is so much we can’t control is every person’s nightmare. However, what we can definitely control is how we react.

We can ask ourselves basic questions that may provide clarity and rationality. Ask yourself what exactly is it that you’re afraid of and is it realistic?
It helps to face your fear. To be honest, this is advice I give but rarely take myself. This doesn’t mean that if you’re afraid of robberies, you should put yourself in a dangerous position to prove it’s not that bad, no! It means that avoidance usually strengthens fear and gives it more power than it deserves. For example, I used to be terrified of public speaking but exposing myself to it more and more has caused me not to be. This is called exposure therapy.

Breathing also always helps! Inhale through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath in for 4 seconds and then exhale through the mouth for 4 seconds. I call it the 4-4-4 rule and it is very beneficial to reduce physiological symptoms of stress- such as increased heart and respiration rate, trembling and many others that usually accompany fear. Repeat this as many times as you need. It may sound trivial to use something we do naturally as a technique, but you would be surprised by the difference the simplest things can make once we concentrate on them.

I do urge you all to be more sensitive to those around you. I did see many costumes which basically made fun of mental health illnesses. In the future, if you want to go as someone who is depressed, anxious, or even suicidal, here’s a tip- Just wear regular clothes as millions of ‘regular’ people suffer from these. In Guyana, we average that over 200,000 people have a mental health illness. Considering our population of just roughly 800,000, that’s a tremendous amount.

Thanking you for reading. Please keep sending any topics you’d like to talk about to caitlinvieira@gmail.com

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