On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt inspired a generation with his statement, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
While Roosevelt was referring to the immense challenges of the Great Depression, his words still ring true. Most people are indeed afraid of fear and do their best to escape it. But running from the feeling is not the same as eliminating the cause of it. Left unaddressed, fear festers below the surface, where it can transform into anxiety, an ever-present, amorphous sense of dread that is no longer anchored to a specific event or object.
If instead of avoiding fears you learn to confront them, you can do more than banish anxiety: You can use them to better understand yourself and learn to live a richer, fuller life. The following strategies can help you start your journey.
If you tell your doctor that you’re experiencing anxiety, you’re likely to walk away with a prescription. For some people, medication offers an effective quick fix, but it’s a partial solution that addresses only the symptoms of anxiety. If pharmaceuticals were the whole answer, we would see a decline in the incidence rates of anxiety that coincides with the dramatic increase in prescriptions, but the opposite is true.
Addressing symptoms alone is clearly not working. To conquer fear and anxiety, you also need to address the underlying causes of anxiety. A therapist can be a valuable partner in this process, while books like Joy From Fear offer exercises that you can work on at home.
Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms
Many people don’t know how to feel and process their feelings—or often even recognize them. Instead, they turn to external solutions. Shopping, overeating, drinking alcohol, or using drugs may give people a quicker fix than practicing yoga, walking, meditating, or using psychotherapy, but the benefits are transitory.
Think of fear as a two-sided coin. On one side, destructive fear draws you to unhealthy coping mechanisms, avoidance, and self-doubt. But the other side, constructive fear, helps you see that something isn’t right, but prompts you to look for positive solutions. For example, if you are afraid that a relationship is failing, destructive fear could lure you to drinking alcohol or overeating to numb and avoid your feelings. Constructive fear, on the other hand, could lead you to explore options that transform and improve what you’re worried about. Instead of overeating, perhaps you could plan date nights to rekindle the romance.
Watch your media diet
There is an old saying, “You are what you eat” that can apply to media, too. Think of it as, “What you consume becomes part of you.” If you’re constantly reading or watching news that focuses on frightening and upsetting things, you’re supplying your brain with endless fuel for anxiety. Studies show that high media consumers have more anxiety and a higher level of body loathing than people who consume less.
It’s fine to check the news once a day to be informed about what’s going on in the world, but you don’t need to know what’s going on 24 hours a day in every part of the world.
Also, limit your exposure to social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which often serve as triggers for outrage and frustration.
Exercise can boost mental clarity and improve brain function. It stimulates the release of endorphins, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, all of which can improve mood. A brisk, 10-minute walk has the power to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, decrease your stress level, and fight fatigue. Use your walking time to consciously let go of life’s stressors—to leave them behind you as you move forward.
Gentle exercises such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong combine gentle movement, stretching, breathing, and elements of meditation that can also help reduce stress.
Positive messages and imagery
Find a positive message or mantra that feels strong and calming for you. Repeat it when you are calm so your brain associates the words with a positive, relaxed state. Keep a copy of your statement in your wallet, on your mirror, and on your desk. It can be helpful to repeat the words as you press a specific finger or place on your hand to anchor the calming feeling. At the slightest hint of anxiety or stress, repeat the mantra.
Next, envision yourself in a real or imaginary place that feels serene. Etch the details into your mind. When a stressful situation begins to arise, take a break to imagine yourself in that beautiful, stress-free environment.
Get to sleep
A report from The National Institutes of Health indicated that “after several nights of losing sleep—even a loss of just one to two hours per night—your ability to function suffers as if you haven’t slept at all for a day or two.” Not only does sleep loss affect your mood overall, but exhaustion also makes it harder to resist the destructive side of fear and seek out opportunities for transformation.
If you struggle to fall asleep because your mind is filled with worries or plans, keep a notepad beside your bed where you can write down to-do list items and things you don’t want to forget. Once pesky thoughts are on the notepad, the psyche can unwind and rest.
Keeping a journal works in a similar way. Writing down your stresses, anxieties, and fears can help release unwanted energy. Let your emotions and thoughts flow freely; don’t selfedit or worry about grammar. When you are finished, close the journal and resist the temptation to reread it, as that can bring up self-criticism and judgment.
Time to worry
If you are a chronic worrier, make a daily time to worry—ideally a few hours before bedtime. At the set time, sit down with a pen and paper and allow yourself to worry for five or 10 minutes. As counterintuitive as this may sound, it works. Instead of trying to force yourself not to worry, which can actually increase worrying, the busy mind often calms down once it knows it will be allowed to worry at a set time.
Laughter can relieve stress and elevate your mood. Whether you call a friend to share comical memories or watch a rerun of your favorite funny television show, remember that laughter is a very powerful medicine.
For an added bonus, cuddle up with a loved one or pet. Touch can relieve stress, decrease anxiety, and elevate your mood.
The routines that we live with day in and day out create hard-wired patterns and felt memories.
Think nonjudgmentally about how you begin most of your days. Do you wake to the alarm clock screaming at you? Do your first thoughts take you to work and to-do lists? When it’s time to head to work, do you hug your partner or pet goodbye and move out into the world with a smile?
Whatever your routine may be, ask yourself, “Is this how I want to start my day?” Give your evening routine the same objective review. Develop routines that make your home life feel safe and free from the external world’s stressors.
As you use these steps, you will find that you enjoy life just a bit more each day. Listen to yourself. Listen to your needs. Move forward consciously and compassionately, taking one small step at a time.