Skip to Main Content

Understand the body’s response to fear & anxiety

Sometimes, we experience surges of intense anxiety. All of a sudden, we may feel physical symptoms like an increased heart rate, sweaty palms and shortness of breath. These can be very scary experiences, especially when they start without warning.

When this happens, we might feel the urge to escape whatever environment they are in or freeze in place, like we can't move. Part of the reason these experiences are so scary is that it’s not clear why they are happening, how long the feelings will last or what the outcome might be. Experiencing these so-called panic symptoms is a major source of distress for many people, and they tend to occur more often during times of heightened stress.

While unpleasant, the vast majority of these experiences are not an indication that something actually is wrong with us. Rather, they are the result of our body’s defense system becoming activated. In this STAND Tip, we explain why the body’s defense system causes these symptoms.

How does fear affect the body?

Anxiety and fear are natural reactions that help us stay safe. If we didn’t have anxiety and fear, we wouldn’t survive, as these feelings alert us and help us react to dangerous situations like reacting when cars are coming towards us while walking in the street.

We feel fear when we are in a present situation that we perceive as dangerous. We get anxious when we think about or imagine something threatening that might happen in the future. Anxiety and fear are made up of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors. Our bodies respond to fear almost instantaneously. We can feel scared and tense without knowing the cause. We also can instinctively avoid situations that seem dangerous without even realizing it.

When we are in a situation that we perceive as threatening, our bodies react by motivating us to react in one of three ways: run away as fast as possible (flight), fend off an attack (fight) or stay motionless to avoid detection (freeze). The symptoms we label anxiety are actually physiological changes that help our body survive.

It’s helpful to recognize some of the common symptoms of fear and anxiety and see how they help us to survive when we are faced with a threat. Please refer to the information sheet to learn more about what’s happening in our bodies when we experience the following symptoms:

  • Jittery/shaking feeling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing/pounding heart
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle tension (pain)
  • Nausea or “butterflies”
  • Sweaty or “clammy”
  • Mind going blank or thoughts of death

When we are in a state of fear and panic, less blood goes to the brain. As a result, our thoughts are less rationale and are distorted by fear. Because a substantial amount of energy is used when we flee or fight, our bodies cannot maintain this state for very long. Once the threat is over, the fear and physical symptoms quickly decrease.

In other words, you don’t have to do anything to make the symptoms go away. The symptoms may be very unpleasant, but they are harmless, and they will go away on their own.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheets

Understanding & Managing Fear & Anxiety

Body Responses to Fear & Anxiety