Six Suggestions to Help Lower Your Fear and Anxiety, Part 1
Look around, look ahead, and look up.
Posted Jul 12, 2018
Recently I wrote an article for The Inquisitive Mind magazine, on the origins of common fears.1
In that article I discussed evolutionary, cognitive, behavioral, and personality-based theories that attempted to explain the genesis of common fears. Loosely based on those theories, I would like to share six suggestions (three of which I will discuss in today’s post) with you about ways to reduce fears and anxieties.
1. Look around.
Fear and anxiety are a big part of our lives. Philosopher Kierkegaard famously described anxiety as the “dizziness of freedom.”
Evolutionary psychology suggests that we inherited the kinds of fears that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. So we fear, say, strangers, in part because our ancestors were reluctant to trust strangers too. Presumably ones who were quick to trust strangers were killed and so could not pass on their genes to us.
In short, many of us have similar fears; and that is what you may notice, if you simply look around (hence this section's title).
So I think it is important to try not to think of fear as a kind of punishment or to think of the experience of fear as a weakness. You are not singled out; fear is felt by everyone.
Why am I emphasizing the commonality of anxiety? Because I believe that fear has a way of separating us from others. There is a loneliness in the unpleasant experience of fear, and that loneliness intensifies the suffering.
A friend described intense anxiety as the experience of being trapped in the ever-tightening muscular coils of an invisible boa constrictor, with nobody nearby to hear your screams.
Can you have self-compassion for yourself in those moments? I asked him. One of the three elements of having self-compassion is, indeed, remembering that you are not alone. (The other two elements consist of being kind to yourself, and trying not to fuse with thoughts, emotions, and sensations.)2
To return to my friend’s metaphor, it might help to imagine that all of us are walking around with our own boa constrictors wrapped around us, whether we are rich or poor, doctors or patients, young or old….
In short, when dealing with intense bouts of anxiety, it could be a good idea to look around and remember that we all experience anguish from time to time.
2. Look ahead.
Some fears are learned. One way this happens is through direct conditioning. That means you learn to associate one thing with another, so that the new item elicits the same response as the old. (Here is a more detailed explanation of conditioning.)
Take the case of someone who goes swimming in the ocean for the first time, is attacked by a shark, but luckily escapes physically unharmed. It is possible that this person will, from then on, associate oceans, beaches, swimming, etc, with the fear that resulted from that frightening shark encounter.
So how can we counter conditioning? My suggestion, as you are probably guessing, is to look ahead. First, avoid dangerous situations. And when you are unable to, try to go into them well-prepared—this includes having relevant knowledge. If you go into a risky situation well-prepared, you are less likely to be caught off guard and exposed to frightening encounters that result in the formation of fearful associations.
Consider another example, that of driving. If visibility is poor or if you are tired or ill, you might need to avoid driving or at least drive cautiously. If you do not do so, you could have an accident, and as a result, aside from experiencing physical trauma you may also develop a fear of driving.
So look ahead and plan accordingly.
3. Look up.
We look up to certain people. We may look up to some family members and friends, but also to successful or well-known athletes, actors, political activists, or business people. We read about them, watch them on TV, and follow them on social media.
Though we are able to learn positive behaviors by observing others (as noted above), one theory about the genesis of fears suggests that we may also learn fears by observing others.
For instance, consider what might happen when you watch an anxious coworker mumble a complaint to your abusive boss, only to be mocked or threatened. Could it be that you just learned to fear ever complaining to your boss?
So how can you do what you need to do (such as complain to your boss) without the additional anxiety? First, evaluate the situation rationally. If you believe that a certain course of action (e.g., speaking your mind about a work situation) is the right thing to do, then seek and look up to inspirational people, people who face their own fears—especially if they have often obtained positive results. These people, in facing their fears, are modeling courageous behavior; thus, looking up to them can be empowering.
And if you are exposed to a potential fear-related learning situation, do not panic; simply do your best to be mindful, and to later analyze the situation so that you can uncover positive aspects of what you just witnessed. To return to our example, do not remember only your boss mocking your coworker, but also your coworker’s strength and courage in having decided to stand up to your boss!
I will discuss another three ways to reduce your anxiety, in my next post on the subject.
1. Emamzadeh, A. (2018). Origins of common fears: A review. The Inquisitive Mind, 5, 37.
2. Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2, 85–101.