Health: Fight Stress in the Modern Age; Primal Fear Helped to Keep Us Alive When Predators or the Threat of Starvation Loomed Large, but in These Less Dangerous Days Adrenaline Rushes, Panic Attacks and Phobias Can Stop Us Leading the Lives We Would like. Andrew Davies and Rachel Crofts Report
Byline: Andrew Davies and Rachel Crofts
To most people, Nicole Kidman appears the epitome of elegance, success and confidence.
But the actress admitted recently that she is secretly terrified of acting.
'It's weird, because every time I start a film I think, 'I can't act',' she says. 'I've tried to pull out of almost every one I've done because of sheer terror.
'I can always come up with a list of actresses who would be better, and try to convince the director to cast someone else by showing the list.'
For someone who suffers a crisis of confidence every time she embarks on a new film or play, forcing herself into the spotlight in front of theatre audiences or film crews seems a strange choice of career.
However, fear is actually a natural emotion we all experience in our everyday lives - it's how we deal with it that's important, experts say.
Julia MacPherson, spokeswoman for the mental health charity Mind, explains: 'Fear can be useful in small doses. It can help us get through difficult situations such as taking exams or job interviews.
'The trouble is that our body is still geared up for prehistoric times when the release of adrenaline was necessary on a daily basis to cope with life-threatening situations.
'Our bodies haven't really adapted to 21stcentury stress and we can still get flooded with adrenaline, which can make it difficult to calm down or to manage the anxiety.
'This is when we experience panic attacks - a flood of adrenaline causes the heart rate to increase, we get shaking or trembling limbs, and a dry mouth.
'Our bodies and brain are experiencing a feeling of fright, putting us on red alert as though we were about to experience a lifethreatening situation, which we are not.'
Managing the feelings of fear or adrenaline and making it work to your advantage is key to dealing with the problem, she says.
Indeed a manageable level of adrenaline can enhance or improve our performance in a stressful situation.
'A certain amount of adrenaline is good because it makes us very alert, helps us to concentrate and sharpens up our brains. It can help us to do something we think we are not going to be able to, such as make a speech or perform in public,' she says.
But problems occur when we lose the ability to control the fear, and this is when a phobia can develop.
'When we become flooded with too much adrenaline, that's when we lose the ability to see something through and a phobia can develop,' she explains.
Phobias can occur for all sorts of reasons and be triggered by experiences or remembering a feeling of fear.
'Some phobias can be the result of childhood experiences, being bitten by a dog as a young child, for instance, can develop into a fear of dogs, or if someone feels anxious in a supermarket, the fear becomes set in their mind and the next time they go they remember the fear and it becomes a cycle,' MacPherson says.
But how do we distinguish between fear and phobia? Nicole Kidman may suffer severe nerves, stage fright or even a crisis of confidence, but is she really suffering from a phobia of acting?
'The criteria for deciding how severe a phobia is, is how much is it impacting on your life,' says MacPherson.
'Nicole Kidman has just won a Bafta and is nominated for an Oscar, she is a highly successful person, who certainly appears to be able to control these fears.
'A lot of us can control adrenaline and fear, and relaxation techniques or self-help therapies can be useful to manage them.
'But when things start to impact on our lives, such as we can't face getting on an aeroplane because of a fear of flying, or when everyday things like going to the shops get difficult, that's when it's time to seek professional help. …