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Mental Hygiene Now: Managing Suddenly Spiking Fear

Feeling panicky? Use these coping strategies.

These are uniquely anxious times. Ironically, people who’ve dealt with chronic anxiety for many years may have acquired skills to manage such experiences—through therapy or on their own. This is why many anxious people may actually feel some sense of relief during these times. For once, everyone is sharing their experience. There’s validation in that, and a soothing sense of community. Likewise, those who’ve worked and managed to thrive for years in stressful and anxiety-producing environments or professions may also prove resilient—having developed sound strategies and habits of coping.

Yet the average person may easily be caught unprepared for the experience of a sudden, alarming spike in their anxiety level, brought about by something they heard or saw on the news, or by the gradual deterioration of their ordinary coping strategies in the face of extraordinary circumstances. If you find yourself experiencing a moment of spiking dread, here are a few empirically supported strategies for calming yourself.

Giuseppe Milo
Source: Giuseppe Milo

1. Breathe. One of the first things to change when we’re scared is our breathing. Ironically, these changes, which may be subtle enough to go unnoticed, in turn produce scary physical symptoms that tend to increase anxiety. Hyperventilation is a state of excessive, deep or rapid breathing (common in panic disorder), in which we exhale more carbon dioxide than needed, causing the bloodstream to operate with abnormally low levels of carbon dioxide, resulting in respiratory alkalosis (excessive blood alkalinity) and an elevated blood pH level. Alkalosis causes constriction of the tiny blood vessels supplying the brain. Reduced blood supply to the brain can cause several disconcerting symptoms, including lightheadedness, dizziness, and tingling of the fingertips. Severe hyperventilation can cause momentary loss of consciousness (fainting).

It is important to remember that the bodily symptoms produced by hyperventilation are scary, but not dangerous, and not an indication of an underlying organic illness. Calming your breathing, however, will counter the scary sensations and restore your concentration and sense of control. You can find good breathing exercises here, here, and here. It is important to know that breathing exercises may elicit anxiety in some people, at least initially. Yet, even if you don’t practice breathing regularly, you may usefully choose, when you’re feeling scared, to tend to your breathing for a few minutes, slow it down, and return to equilibrium.

2. Accept your fear and let it be. This may feel counterintuitive, since our first impulse is often to reject negative feelings. Yet it makes no more sense to deny or ignore our emotional experience than it does to try those strategies with regard to the weather outside. Telling yourself you’re not allowed to be afraid is pointless, and a lie. You are allowed. Fear is a basic and useful human emotion. You are human. You have fear. Moreover, in your internal architecture, whatever you tell yourself you’re not allowed to feel, you’re already feeling. Ignoring emotion is also foolhardy, since our emotions convey information that is often useful. Ignoring useful data may lead to bad decisions, like walking out in shorts during a snowstorm. Thus, when it comes to emotions like fear, the correct approach is acceptance. Observe your fear with curiosity and compassion. Let it speak its piece. Then, consult your courage.

3. Check the facts. Don’t base your assessment of danger solely on your level of fear. Remember, our fear system has evolved to protect us from danger. Thus, we associate fear with imminent danger. Yet that association is fraught for several reasons. First, our fear system is ancient, and has evolved in an environment much different than the one in which we now operate. You fear a spider more than a chair even though sitting for too much of the day is more likely to harm you than spiders. This is because creepy crawlies were a menacing presence in our evolutionary environment, while chairs didn’t exist. Second, the fear system, serving a protective alarm function, tends to over-react, because false alarm is less costly than a miss with such a system. Third, the ancient fear system is fast-acting, while our deliberative, analytic neocortex takes more time to come online and do its rational risk-assessment business.

Finally, the fear system is but one source of information about our situation, and the information it provides is often biased, partial, or distorted. Thus, when you feel fearful, register the data, but then seek confirmatory converging evidence from other sources. Fear is a mind event, while danger is a world event. Gauge the level of danger by the facts, not by the level of fear.

4. Watch what you tell yourself. Ask yourself: “What am I telling myself right now?” More often than not, it’s your thoughts that cause your outsized fear, rather than the situation itself. Then, think again about your thinking. In scary, unpredictable times, anxious thoughts are bound to announce themselves early and loudly. But remember that the first thing you see is not necessarily the best; the incessant voice is not necessarily truthful; and the loudmouth is not necessarily knowledgeable. Don’t believe everything you think. Challenge catastrophic thoughts. Check the facts.

5. Assess which variables are under your control or sphere of influence. Focus your action in those areas. A sense of perceived control is important to our psychological wellbeing. This is why we’re so busy angling for it all the time. If you examine the processes we call “progress” you will notice that many of them involve improving our sense of control: think science, with its promise of forecasting the future; think medicine, with its promise of preventing and curing disease.

On some grand, abstract, philosophical level, nothing is in our control. In an expanded perspective that includes the infinities of time and space, our individual existence fails to register at all. But on a concrete, pragmatic level, every situation in which you find yourself presents some aspects over which you may exert some influence. If it’s raining outside, you're better advised to look for an umbrella than to shout at God and the Heavens to quit raining. Focus on what you can control.

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