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The Anxiety Monster Feeds on Second Fear

September 7, 2015 by Diane

Retro and Vintage Frightened and Scared Girl Screaming

In Hope and Help for your Nerves, Dr. Claire Weekes describes first fear and second fear.

First fear is our reaction to a trigger, flooding the body with adrenaline. A white-hot flame of panic spreads from our middle to our chest, up the spine, down the arms and legs to the tips of our toes. It signals the fight-or-flight response.

Second fear is caused by the thoughts we tell ourselves, adding more adrenaline to the mix; thoughts that start with “what if” and “oh my goodness!” They feed our anxiety, leading to “nervous illness.”

The good news is that adrenaline is short-lived. We can nip our anxiety symptoms in the bud if we take deep breaths, face the fear, tell ourselves this too will pass, and don’t add second fear.

A case in point…

I was answering the phone on the tenth floor of a law firm, my first afternoon on the job as a temporary receptionist, when Mother Nature decided to give the high-rise a good firm shake. The massive jolt and rolling waves dislodged the lawyers from their offices. They scrambled for the hallway.

“Earthquake! RUN,” one of them yelled in passing.

I shot to my feet, told the person on the phone we were having an earthquake, ditched the receiver and lurched down the hall, cramming myself into the elevator with everyone else. The building swayed from side to side like some out-of-control carnival ride, and our flight instincts sent us straight into an upright coffin for twelve. Clearly, we were not thinking clearly.

First fear.

Someone pushed the button. The doors whizzed shut. The elevator stayed put. We were trapped. A woman dropped to her knees and screamed, “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” and sobbed hysterically.

Second fear.

The monster had arrived. It was ready to consume us all.

One of the lawyers punched the buttons like a crazy person. He tried to pry the doors open. I clenched my jaw, my bowels, my toes, refusing to be hijacked by my rising panic, told myself, “I’m not going to die in an elevator with a bunch of strangers,” and hung onto that belief until the doors, miraculously, slid open.

We stumbled out, pushed our way to the stairwell, pounded down the steps—bam bam bam bam bam—nine flights to the lobby, spilled out onto the sidewalk, wobbled around in circles, stunned, until we found our land legs, and then scattered in all directions.

The earthquake lasted three and a half minutes.

The shaking hung around in my nerves a lot longer.

I never went back to that job. It would be years before I went back into that building.

Walt, a friend of mine who wore loafers without socks, who had sultry eyes and wore white shirts open at the throat, loved earthquakes. He would flatten himself to the ground, pressing every inch of himself to the earth so he could feel the undulations. He would ride that puppy like a bucking bronco. I don’t know how he managed it. I think it was his way of thumbing his nose at fear.

Not all of our fears are as big as earthquakes. They can be as small as a premature heartbeat.

First fear tells us to jump out of the way of an oncoming car, or run from a spider. It reminds us to “duck and cover” when the earth shakes, or punch those elevator buttons to open the door. Sometimes it gets confused, and tells us we’re having a heart attack when it’s really just panic.

Second fear screams, “you’re going to die” when panic hits. It warns of the dangers outside our homes and keeps us trapped inside. It convinces us that we can’t handle first fear, so we’d better not try.

The purpose of first fear is to keep us alive.

The purpose of second fear is to keep us from living.

Dr. Weekes advises this: watch the fear go up and down. Ride it like a roller coaster. As long as you don’t prolong it by adding second fear, you’ll be reining it in within five minutes–the length of time it takes for adrenaline to fade–give or take.

I try to remember that whenever the monster starts to feed.


  1. This: “a friend of mine who wore loafers without socks, who had sultry eyes and wore white shirts open at the throat, loved earthquakes.” Great line. Thanks for the read, and happy #MondayBlogs!

  2. gulara says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Sadly, I’m well-acquainted with both. Great reminder!

    • Diane says:

      Hope this was helpful! I highly recommend Hope and Help for Your Nerves. I love how she calls anxiety “nervous illness” and explains it as over-sensitization, leading to bewilderment.

  3. Bun Karyudo says:

    That’s very interesting! I’d never heard of fear split up in this way before, but thinking about it now, I’ve definitely experienced both kinds. First fear is an occasional visitor but second fear is virtually a permanent houseguest, I’m afraid.

  4. Joan says:

    Wow! Did that really happen? Great advice…I’m going to b more aware of the second fear…the life stealer!!!

  5. Erin says:

    Great post! It definitely gets me thinking about how I can stop adding second fear to first in my own life situations. “The purpose of second fear is to keep us from living.”–powerful line!

  6. Charli Mills says:

    And fear carries along the story! You had me hooked on reading, and the contrast with your friend who rode those puppies like a bronco is terrific pacing. And yes, I know both fears. We survive the little shaking and the big ones. I never thought of just riding out the adrenaline and not giving into the second wave.

  7. Bridget Courtney says:

    Reading this for fun tonight in 2017.
    I have chronic anxiety, diagnosed as GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) I would have been totally lost in the dark woods if it wasn’t for the late Dr. Claire Weekes. It’s so true..that second fear “keeps the fire stoked”,as she I try to send it packing. Not always successfully, but at least her great knowledge and insight never leaves me.. What a great woman!

    • Diane says:

      She really was a jewel, wasn’t she? I have her CD, too. Very no-nonsense kind of voice. I’m not always successful at “sending it packing” either, but if I stay on top of my meditation practice, it’s less likely that I get to that state in the first place.

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