How to Deal with Chronic Fear and Anxiety
In this section we address things you can do on your own to work with fear and anxiety. We do not cover the many valuable techniques and therapies available when working with professional psychologists or other providers. These are essential for those who have experienced trauma or are suffering from intense chronic fear or anxiety.
The only way to deal with fear is to face it. Avoiding it prevents us from moving forward—it makes us anxious. Therapists can be invaluable in helping us work through our avoiding strategies. If you have experienced trauma, it is especially important to work with a therapist to create a safe environment where you can face your fear and reconstruct your memories.
Another technique in milder situations is to use mindfulness meditation techniques to sit with what is arising. All you need to do is sit quietly and observe the present moment. If fear or anxiety arises, recognize it. Watch it rise up. Notice how it feels in your body. Observe it as it is; don’t try to get rid of it or change it.
As Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, says, “Every time your fear is invited up, every time you recognize it and smile at it, your fear will lose some of its strength.”
Develop a healthy sense of personal control
The emphasis is on “personal control.” Stress-hardy people focus their energy on those events that they have influence over, rather than situations beyond their control. The Serenity prayer, attributed to American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, expresses this well:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Fear causes us to notice and remember negative events, which reinforces our sense that the world is a scary place. We can work to change that by deliberately noticing what is positive—the joy we feel when we see someone we love, the pleasure of a sunny day, the beauty in nature, the fun of an outing, the humor in a situation.
According to research by Barbara Fredrickson, positivity broadens our perspective—we literally have a wider view, which offers us more options. And the more we practice positivity, the more it builds, creating a resilience that allows us to function even in difficult times.
Fear can shatter our sense of the world as we know it. Those who have experienced trauma may also have experienced real losses that further lead them to question the meaning of their lives. Trauma survivors also often feel guilt about what happened, feeling, illogically, that they could have somehow prevented it, and this shame can also contribute to doubts about their meaning.
But whether we suffer from anxiety or trauma, it is important to rediscover a sense of purpose. An 80-year study of factors contributing to longevity found that individuals who are able to find meaning in a traumatic experience—such as going to war or suffering a personal assault—and are able to reestablish a sense of security about the world are ones who return to healthy behaviors and taking care of themselves.
One therapy successfully used with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD) is logotherapy, which literally means “healing through meaning.” Part of this is simply telling their stories and feeling understood, which in itself helps heal trauma. Another part is finding a way to use skills and experience, including skills learned through trauma, in a meaningful way. For example a veteran who experienced homelessness because of PSTD, may be able to find meaning in helping others in the same situation at a homeless shelter. The Purpose aspect of our wellbeing model offers a practical way to explore meaning, along with exercises.
Fear can also cause us to feel disconnected from others. The longevity project also found that one of the key predictors for longevity of people who had encountered trauma in their lives was the strength of their social relationships.
There are many reasons for this. Friends and family can help us make a realistic assessment of the threat. With the support of others, we feel more confident that we can deal with issues. And physically, having a loved one close calms us and reduces the fight or flight response.
Go for a walk in nature
As the new field of nature-based therapies shows, being in nature reduces fear and anxiety and increases pleasant feelings. Looking at a scene of natural beauty, people describe their feelings with words like calm, beauty, happiness, hope, and aliveness. Being connected to nature not only makes people feel better emotionally, it reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones—all signals of stress and fear.
So when you are fighting feelings of fear or anxiety, find a park or greenspace and go for a walk or run. In addition to the restorative effects of nature, the physical exercise will also help your mood.
Face your fears and anxieties so they don’t become debilitating. Identify ways to create a sense of personal control or mastery in your life.
Practice stress reduction techniques, such as mindfulness meditation or aerobic exercise. Shift your focus to the positive emotions in your daily life. Work to identify meaning and purpose in your life. Get support from others. Go for a walk or run in a park.
Take gentle actions that increase safety and reduce violence in your community. Become engaged with your community and environment. Suggest or support policies that improve everyone’s security.
And finally, even if you are challenged by fear, don’t ignore other parts of your life. It is possible to find wellbeing in relationships and purpose even while working on security.