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How to Cope in a Fear-Driven Society

Anxiety has become the new normal, but there are ways to lower your temperature.

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You get emails daily from people who say they were just able to break into your accounts or an alert about something that you ate last night that now can cause cancer. You get phone call from scammers telling you that the IRS is coming in a few minutes to take away your house for back taxes, or an ad on TV tells you it is only a matter of when, not if, that your identity is stolen. And of course there's always politics.

We live in a fear-driven society. Why? Partly because of the state and culture of our society, but also because our brains are hot-wired for fear. From the dawn of time fear has helped us to survive—to keep us alert to anticipate trouble and keep us from getting eaten by predators. Fear motivates us better than anything else. Anything positive—our values, our passions, inspirations and desires—lack the same brain punch, and sellers, scammers, or those simply trying to get our attention know this.

But while our evolutionary ancestors had good reasons to be afraid, their anxieties came in fits and starts; once back in the cave, once the tiger lumbered away, so did their fear. In contrast we have no reprieve: We are constantly bombarded by messages telling us that the world is never safe, danger is around the corner. And if you are already genetically wired for anxiety, this barrage only provides more fodder. It's no wonder that anxiety is the primary problem affecting adults and children.

So, how to cope in such a fear-based society? Some suggestions:

Separate out rational and irrational anxiety

You wake up at three in the morning and realize that you never heard back from your supervisor about whether she approved your vacation time, or that you never followed-up with your brother about the results of his lab tests. Your spurt of anxiety is based on real-world problems and rational. Use it. Get up (okay, maybe wait till 7:00) and then take action — do something, don’t dither. Send a follow-up email to your supervisor, a text to your brother about the lab results. Put them to rest.

Irrational anxiety is …mostly irrational. You've been having headaches lately and at three in the morning your mind goes to thinking that maybe you have a brain tumor. Or your partner says she is fed up and wants to quit her job (though she says this all the time) but you freak out and worry about paying the rent.

Irrational anxiety takes a small grain of truth and blows it way out of proportion. What your anxious mind is likely saying at this point is that you need to figure this out, that the only way to feel better is to get more information. If you listen to your anxious mind, you'll likely wind up spending five hours on the internet looking at brain tumors, or crunching numbers or looking for part-time jobs, likely getting only more overwhelmed and confused.

Don't do this. The problem here isn't what you anxious brain is telling you is the problem, but the rising anxiety itself. Rather than spending five hours on the internet trying to track down the ultimate answer to your problem, you instead want to lower your anxiety and get your rational brain back online. Take those deep breaths, go for the walk, talk it through with a sensible friend, clear your head. Don’t get in the weeds of the irrational nonsense in your head. Once the anxiety dust settles, see what is left.

Nothing may be left; it's all some anxiety spasm that is over, you realize that old childhood fears have been triggered, that your stress has hit some vulnerable spot. And If something rational remains, do something. If the headaches persist, go check it out with your PCP. Have a sane conversation with your partner both about her job stress and your financial concerns.

Be aware of what you can control

Even if you can get rationally upset about the latest story on the news about climate change, it helps to be aware of what you can and cannot control. Can you stop tornadoes or floods or save the planet? Probably not. But can you work for or give money to an organization that does? Sure.

But the same thinking applies on a more personal level. Your supervisor never gets back to you about the vacation—he’s in the hospital, she was fired—decide what you can do next, have a Plan B. It may be as simple as calling your supervisor’s supervisor or HR, or deciding to reduce the time pressure and shift the whole vacation to May. If you don't hear back from your brother, call your mother and find out if she has any news.

Proactively reduce the negativity coming at you

If you are spending two hours a night listening to bad news on the news channels and then watching slasher movies as wind-down entertainment after, you may want to consider a change in your visual and auditory diet. No, you don’t need to watch the puppy channel 24/7, but you can experiment with finding more neutral or positive podcasts to listen to in the car, can decide to simply the delete all the junk emails in your inbox without reading them, or put a hold on a rationally-based but anxious-provoking email from your boss till you're not tired, hungry or stressed.

Deliberately look for the good

A proven technique to help reduce depression is to have folks write down before they go to bed all the positive things that happened during the day. The devil here is in the details: Noticing the brilliant sky when they were driving to work, that the man at the bank held the door open for them, that their partner had started dinner and the house smelled wonderful when they walked in from work.

Deliberately looking for the good is not just about slowing down and smelling the roses, but sensitizing, rewiring, and replacing some of those negative circuits with positive ones. While this is likely to feel artificial and a bit forced at first, it becomes more automatic with practice and can make a big difference in your outlook.

Build in de-stressors

If your anxiety is always running at a seven or eight on the 10-point scale, it doesn't take much to put you over the edge. To better handle the negative barrage, as well as the stress and strains of everyday life, you need to have concrete ways of lowering your anxiety threshold. So write down those positives, but also build in exercise, yoga, meditation. The key is to build these destressors into your daily and weekly routine. And if caffeine ramps up your anxiety (and it will) consider cutting back.

Consider medication/therapy

If you already struggling with anxiety due to genetics or situational stressors that won’t quit, all the fear coming at you is adding logs to the fire. Build in those destressors, but if they are not doing a good-enough job, it may be time to consider medication and / or therapy to tackle underlying problems and to learn new anxiety-management skills.

You can't change the fearful world, but you can take some of the fear our of your world.

Time to do it?

More from Robert Taibbi L.C.S.W.
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