We live in stressful times. Due to COVID-19, we have experienced a “Shelter in Place/Stay at Home” order. Living through a worldwide pandemic has added to the stress that is already a part of life in modernity. Many of you have experienced a noticeable increase in fear and anxiety, and some of you are having trouble dealing with the increase through your normal coping mechanisms. Fortunately, proven strategies for managing fear and anxiety can be incorporated into your life for any situation.
None of us are immune. At times, we all experience anxiety in some form in our lives, pandemic or no pandemic. In fact, it is not possible to live in this world without some amount of fear. What causes you anxiety? What do you fear? Are the anxiety and fear so intense at times that it overwhelms you? Have you ever thought, “If I could just get rid of this anxiety, life would be so much easier?” It is normal to have anxiety at times, and actually having some amount of fear is necessary for healthy living.
Therefore, the goal is not to eliminate all fear and anxiety. Rather, the goal is to manage it instead of allowing it to manage you. How can you know if the anxiety you feel is normal or not? What can you do to better manage the fear that you experience? The best place to begin is to have an accurate understanding of what fear and anxiety really are.
First of all, fear is normal. Fear is a cognitive, or thinking, process. It has been said that fear is the appraisal of danger. As you move through life, you evaluate the danger level in everything that you encounter or do. If you perceive danger, fear slows you down so that you will proceed in the best possible way, thoughtfully and with caution. In extreme cases, fear will lead you to avoid a situation you perceive as too dangerous.
Anxiety is the emotional response to fear, and it too is normal. It is an emotional, or feeling, process. Anxiety has been defined as a subjectively unpleasant emotional state. Some people liken anxiety to pain. Its function is to warn. On a physical level, pain can serve the purpose to slow you down or stop an activity that could be harmful. On an emotional level, anxiety serves the same purpose.
In addition to an emotional response, anxiety is also experienced physically. When you “feel” anxiety, you are simultaneously having a physical response. You are certainly aware of feeling anxiety in your body. Common physical signs of anxiety include rapid heart rate, sweating, rapid breathing/hyperventilating, stomach distress, shaking, or feeling dizzy. These are all a result of a chemical process happening in your body.
All of this is part of what is called the fight or flight response, and all mammals are born with it. When you perceive danger, the more primitive part of your brain triggers the autonomic nervous system to act in a way to either fight the danger or flee the danger. During this process, high amounts of adrenaline and a few other chemicals are being released into your bloodstream to mobilize you to fight or flee. These chemicals are responsible for the emotional and physical feelings called anxiety.
The good news is this fight or flight response is necessary for survival, and it is very effective. It is automatic, it overrides analysis, and it is what keeps you safe when you encounter danger. The bad news is that the fight or flight response is subject to false alarms. In other words, situations that really are of little or no danger can trigger this response. For this reason, you can experience high levels of anxiety in response to minor situations. Further, the fight or flight response sometimes does not know the difference between real danger and imagined danger.
This last point is why you feel so much anxiety when you worry about the future. When you are worried about something that might happen, your brain responds as if it is happening now. The fight or flight response is triggered, and you experience anxiety. Your fear of the future is experienced as anxiety in the present.
The following strategies have proven to be effective in reducing fear and anxiety.
Cognitive (Thinking) Strategies
People who struggle with fear and anxiety often make one or all of several thinking errors.
Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst possible outcome of a situation. The reality is that the worst possible outcome rarely ever happens. Usually, the outcome of the things you fear or worry about is much less than what you imagine. In fact, it often turns out that what happens is easily managed. In the words of Calvin Coolidge, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.”
Probability Overestimation: Probability is the likelihood of something happening. You are always guessing at the likelihood of something occurring. When you estimate it to be highly likely, anxiety is higher. The goal is a more realistic evaluation. Often, the likelihood of a serious outcome is very unlikely.
All-or-Nothing Thinking: This involves looking at the world in black and white, with no gray in between. Things in life are rarely all good or all bad; usually they are a combination of both.
Identifying and changing the thinking errors we make is an effective way to manage fear and anxiety.
Relaxation: Regularly engaging in relaxation can lower stress and anxiety. Relaxation can be as simple as abdominal breathing exercises that involve breathing slowly and deeply into our lungs. Progressive muscle relaxation that focuses on tensing and relaxing muscle groups can reduce the overall tension in your bodies. Yoga is another relaxation strategy that is proven to reduce stress and anxiety. When you relax the body, you can more effectively relax the mind. This leads to another strategy.
Mindfulness: Closely related to relaxation, mindfulness focuses attention on what is happening in the present, can involve meditation, and incorporates a “non-judgmental” approach to the present. You notice what you think or feel without labeling it as good or bad. The main benefit of mindfulness is that it can increase awareness of your thoughts. Often, you are worrying, thinking negatively, or feeding your anxiety when you are not even aware of it. This involves the idea of “taking your thoughts captive.” Mindfulness is focused mental energy. It can also be helpful to focus physical energy.
Exercise: Research is clear that regular exercise is one of the most effective anxiety management strategies available. One of its main benefits is that it reduces muscle tension and metabolizes the excessive adrenaline that comes from stress. The good news is that exercise can be fun. It can become a hobby. It can be something that adds meaning to life and serves to counterbalance life’s difficulties. So many forms of exercise are available that most of you can find something that works. Beware of all-or-nothing thinking here. You don’t have to do it perfectly, like someone else, or even for large amounts of time. The goal is to start somewhere, evaluate it, and progress in a way that works for you. Further, exercise is an anxiety management strategy that can be done with others. It can provide a social connection.
Social Connection and Community: Stresses, fears, and anxieties of life are better handled in connection to others. Having a community of supportive friends and confidants allows you to realize that you are not alone in going through the struggles of life. Furthermore, you realize that the things you fear, worry over, or are stressed about are common to most other people. It helps to know that you are not alone and that others have the same struggles that you do. Developing community challenges your fears of unlikely catastrophic outcomes.
Healthy Sense of Self: Living with a belief that no one will like you, understand you, or want to be your friend creates anxiety and fear. You have to challenge your own negative thinking about yourself. The truth is that someone will want to be a friend. To be successful, you have to defeat such thinking errors as probability overestimation, catastrophizing, and all-or-nothing thinking. Learning to see yourself realistically and to like and value yourself will help you to make friends.
Boundaries: Markers that indicate where one aspect stops and another begins are important. Like the property line that defines your yard and your neighbor’s, boundaries in relationships define what belongs to you and what belongs to another: thoughts, feelings, choices, actions, needs, desires, beliefs, and attitudes. The same belong to other people. You are only responsible to manage yourself. You do not have to nor can you manage the feelings, thoughts, and choices of others. This is good news and bad news. Managing your own stuff is hard enough. Unnecessary fear and anxiety can occur when you attempt to manage the actions or beliefs of others when you are powerless over them.
Faith/Spirituality: Many find help in dealing with fear and anxiety by a belief in, and a connection to, something larger than themselves. Believing that something beyond you has control, power, and influence over the events of life can allow you to relax and surrender your need to control. Everyone deals with this in their own way. Accessing what you believe in this area and seeing/using it as a way to cope with fear and anxiety can be invaluable.
Remember, you have a choice. You can allow fear and anxiety to manage or control your life, or you can take active steps to manage it. The process begins with accepting anxiety and fear as a normal part of life and then choosing to engage in helpful coping strategies. Sometimes seeking the help of a professional can be what is needed to cope more effectively with fear and anxiety. If you find yourself needing help; pursue it. After all, you are worth it.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.