Your heart pounds, your palms sweat, and you begin to tremble. These physical reactions to danger put your body on high alert. But if you're gripped with fear when there is little or no real danger, like when you're on a plane taxiing down a runway to take off, the real culprit may be anxiety.
"Anxiety is a world-class bluffer. It bluffs people into thinking they're in danger when they're really not," says Martin N. Seif, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and Greenwich, Conn., who co-founded the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.
About 19 million Americans have irrational fears, also called specific phobias, which can bring on anxiety.
They're afraid of closed spaces or heights. They feel panicky during thunderstorms or around dogs. Some irrational fears double up, further increasing the anxiety. For instance, people who dread flying may also be uncomfortable sitting in a narrow tube, confined to their seat and surrounded by strangers, and they may worry about turbulence and storms.
Even people who don't suffer from phobias tend to misjudge risks. We're wary of the scanning machines at the airport, but 1 million people visit tanning salons each day, soaking up ultraviolet radiation that raises the risk of skin cancer. Women worry most about breast cancer even though they're more likely to develop heart disease: About 40,000 women in the U.S. die each year from breast cancer, while more than 300,000 die from heart attacks. We fear things we can't control -- and cancer seems more out of our control.
When our fears interfere with our daily lives, truth is an antidote. For example, Seif advises people who are afraid of flying to research the actual risks. In the past two years, there has not been a single death on a commercial U.S. airliner, while every day about 90 people die in motor vehicle accidents.
But facts alone aren't enough. You have to outsmart your anxiety by focusing on the present rather than "what if," Seif says. Many people just avoid whatever makes them uncomfortable. But Seif, who once had a fear of heights and of flying, says that doesn't work. "If you avoid the anxiety sensations, you're just reinforcing the anxiety," he says.
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