The world is a scary place right now: the novel coronavirus is spreading around the globe; the Saudis and Russians have picked the worst possible moment to engage in an all-out oil price war; financial markets have dropped about 30% since their record highs just a short time ago and entered bear market territory; and unemployment claims now show that more than 3 million Americans have lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, all the things we had previously been so worried about – ballooning federal deficits and corporate debt, the international refugee crisis, and climate change, to name just a few – are still there, lurking in the background.
Compounded a hundredfold by the social media megaphone, which broadcasts rumors, truths, and falsehoods with equal abandon (and with frightening speed and breadth), it seems as if public fear and anxiety, while already at a fever pitch, is only ratcheting higher while we’re all dragged helplessly along.
What’s going on here? Has the world truly gone mad, will COVID19 eventually sicken everyone, will financial markets and the economy continue to plunge? Or are we just taking a (justifiably) very serious situation and making it much worse because we have become prisoners of our own fear? To answer these questions, it’s crucial to understand what fear is and how to relate to it in an effective way – in short, we need a kind of user’s guide to fear.
What is fear, anyway?
Fear is a full-on, physical, brain-and-body response to a stimulus of perceived danger; “danger” is any threat that natural selection has shaped us over many millennia to avoid, so that we might stay alive and have the opportunity to pass on our genetic material to the next generation. Selected for over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, fear has been a very useful adaptation to help us avoid danger and ultimately propagate our species. We’re not alone, of course; many animals with higher brain functions also exhibit the fear response.
Fear starts in the brain when the perception of danger activates the amygdalae, two almond-shaped sections of the temporal lobes that are responsible for the perception of emotions such as fear and sadness, the control of aggression, and the preparation of the body for fight or flight.
The amygdalae, in turn, set off a cascading series of events that occur almost instantaneously: the sympathetic nervous system (part of the autonomic nervous system, responsible for the heart and lungs) goes on high alert, the adrenal glands produce adrenaline, the heart rate elevates, blood-pressure rises, blood flow is decreased to the pre-frontal cortex (your rational thought centers), breathing quickens, muscles tense up, your pupils dilate (so you can see the danger better!), blood flow is shunted to your core and away from your extremities (that’s why your hands get cold and clammy!).
It all happens in an instant, out of your conscious control – before you know it, you are experiencing full-blown fear, unable to think clearly, just deeply afraid and trying desperately to escape or fight whatever danger is out there.
All these physical and psychological manifestations of the fear response are actually quite useful in signaling to us that there is a danger we should probably try to avoid if we want to stay alive and have the chance to procreate. The problem for us modern humans is that this primordial, instinctual human response evolved during a time when our environment was rich with so many life-threatening dangers that a strong fear response was essential for survival. Now, however, most of us don’t need to worry on a daily basis about saber-toothed tigers pouncing on us during a hunt, or a cave bear disturbing our sleep; our fear response is instead hijacked by many more trivial stimuli, like an angry glance from our boss, or a slumping 401(k) balance, so that we are constantly in a state of chronic, low-level fear and anxiety.
Unfortunately, our hard-wired, primitive fear response can’t tell the difference between real danger and perceived danger – its job is just to get you ready to fight or flee, to protect you and increase your chances of survival from whatever threat has just presented itself – so the same response can be triggered by a real threat to your survival (like a wild animal) or just a perceived threat (like speaking in front of an audience).
An obvious problem for us is that the fear response actually suppresses activity in the more rational, thinking part of our brain. Jo Boaler, Stanford professor and author of Limitless Mind, cites neurological studies in her book that show that as the fear centers in our brain are activated, activity in the problem-solving areas of our brain is diminished. We actually become less capable of rational thought and action as we become more fearful.
Further, our fear response can be activated just by uncertainty – even low levels of uncertainty can cause spikes in activity in our amygdalae – and our brains actually have a “certainty bias,” craving that feeling of “being right,” even if we really just have that perception and no certainty at all. In his book, Nerve, Taylor Clark notes that “You don’t actually need to have perfect certainty or total control over how things will pan out; you just need to believe that you have them.”
So, when a situation like COVID-19 comes along, it’s almost tailor-made to create the greatest fear response in our brains and bodies: it’s potentially life-threatening, it’s incredibly uncertain, and we are bombarded almost 24/7 in almost every channel with further news on how potentially life-threatening and uncertain it really is. Our fear response naturally goes into overdrive and, just when we need it most, the rational part of our brain takes a backseat – and lets fear take the wheel.
The crucial thing to note here is that fear is a hard-wired, evolutionary response – we literally can’t escape it, as it’s built into our brains and bodies. We can’t suppress it (not for long, anyway, and not without serious psychological and perhaps bodily harm), and we can’t magically flip a switch and transform it into an affect we like better (say, feeling happy). What we have to do is figure out a way to recognize fear, to accept it, to live with it, to use it to our advantage, and not let it paralyze us – these are things, fortunately, that we can all learn how to do. And, in fact, we must learn how to do them, otherwise we will rob ourselves of the freedom to live lives that are richer, fuller, and more meaningful, because we’ll be too busy hiding and cowering in fear rather than getting ourselves out there and meeting the many challenges that will inevitably come our way, fearful though we may be.
Now that we know what fear is, how can we deal with it?
So, what are some things we can do to “de-tune” our fear response and react more appropriately and rationally to all those anxiety-producing stimuli in our modern environment? To recognize, accept, and use fear to our advantage, rather than let it use us and prevent us from reacting rationally when we most need to? To avoid making dumb decisions because we’re too afraid to think straight?
To use fear properly, rather than letting it use us, we need both to prepare ourselves over the long term with daily practices that develop and strengthen our abilities to manage fear, and we need to have tools we can use in the short term when a perceived threat presents itself. Think of the long-term practices as providing a solid foundation for managing fear, while the short-term tools help us react more quickly to lessen the fear response in the moment.
In our long-term and short-term fear management practices, there are physical and mental components, both of which are critical to putting fear in its proper place.
I’ve summarized some of these practices in this quick Fear User’s Guide below. There are, of course, many others, but I have found these to be very useful in my own life, and I hope you will find them useful, too.
Fear User’s Guide
Daily practices to develop and strengthen our abilities to manage fear over the long term
Long-term physical practices to manage fear
- Get at least 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Turn off all screens and devices at least an hour before bedtime to give yourself time to de-stress and relax.
- Move vigorously for at least 30 minutes every day. Walk, run, jog, bike, swim, you pick what you like best and are excited about doing.
- Don’t sit for long. Even if you exercise daily, you can undo all that hard work just by sitting too much: scientists say that sitting for 8 hours a day (like a typical office-worker) can harm your heart, result in weight gain, impact the health and mobility of your spine, increase your risk of dementia, and shorten your life. I use the Pomodoro Method to make sure I don’t sit still for more than 25 minutes at a time (I set a timer and then get up every 25 minutes to walk around, do that 3 times in a row, then take a longer break). You can also take phone calls while standing up or walking around, use a standing desk, or make frequent trips to the water cooler or kitchen sink to hydrate.
- Eat healthy foods and stay away from SAD (Standard American Diet) foods. Food impacts mood, according to experts (see The Happiness Diet by Dr. Drew Ramsey, MD). In particular, eat lots of fresh vegetables, lean protein, nuts, selected fruits, berries, and healthy oils and fats (think olive oil), stay away from processed “junk” foods, simple starches and carbs (think white bread), avoid all sugars (no more chugging cans of sugary soda every hour), and limit or eliminate your intake of alcohol. The impact on the health of your body and your mind, and your ability to deal with fear, will be profound.
- Drink plenty of water, at least eight 8oz glasses of water per day. Like proper diet, proper hydration is essential for a healthy body (the average adult human is about 57% to 60% water); we’re constantly getting rid of water through sweat and urination, so we need to replace those lost fluids throughout the day.
- Relax. Physical relaxation is essential for developing a body that can withstand and deal with fear. Learning how to pay attention to your body, when it’s tense, what that feels like, and how to relax it are key to being able to deal with stress. You can practice with a simple exercise: find a comfortable chair, sit down, close your eyes, and relax for 3 minutes at a time. During that 3 minutes, picture that you are starting from the very top of your head and relaxing the muscles throughout your body one by one until you get down to your toes. Repeat several times during the day, and you’ll know what it feels like to truly relax and how to do it.
Long-term mental practices to manage fear
- Remind yourself that fear is a necessary part of you. Remember that fear is a full, brain-and-body response that evolved to help humans survive. You must embrace fear and accept it as you embrace and accept any part of yourself, rather than suppress it or run from it.
- Meditate. Meditation has been shown over and over again, in numerous scientific studies (e.g., see Supermind by Normal Rosenthal, MD) to have tremendous health benefits, not just mental (increased calm and focus, for example) but physical (lowered heart rate and blood pressure, for example). There are many apps to help you develop a daily practice (e.g., Insight Timer, Calm, or Headspace), and if you’d like to go deeper, you can get training in Transcendental Meditation (TM) by visiting tm.org (I have practiced TM at least once a day for 25 minutes in the morning for the past 3+ years, and it has made a tremendous difference in my life).
- Be mindful. A key part of your daily mental practice is to practice being mindful: really paying attention to what’s going on in your body, mind, and surroundings. If you’re not mindful, you may not notice that you’re angry, upset, or fearful, or that you are ruminating (see below) on something that’s upsetting you. Meditation is a key practice in developing mindfulness, but another way is to actually practice noticing and write down what you notice in a “mindfulness journal:” it can be as simple as taking 5 minutes to review your body, your mind, and your surroundings, and to write down what you’re noticing: are you tense? Feeling any muscle pains or discomfort? Feeling sad/angry/hopeful/happy? Hearing birds singing, the heat going on, a car going by? Doing this on a daily basis will sharpen your mindfulness so that you can be more attuned to the telltale warning signs of your fear response, recognize it, and be better prepared for it
- Be grateful. A practice of gratitude has been shown to make people more content, happier, calmer, and more resilient – exactly what you need to develop a solid foundation to manage fear. It’s easy to do: just write down 3 to 5 things you are grateful for every day (either in the morning just after waking or in the evening just before going to bed) in a “gratitude journal.” Doing this for just a few weeks has a remarkable impact in lessening fear and anxiety, and provides a solid foundation for living a less-fearful life.
- Stop ruminating. We’re all guilty of this: we constantly replay in our minds an ongoing litany of scary headlines, rumors, bad news, and negative self-talk. This has the effect of reinforcing our fear response, causing our fear and anxiety to escalate. A sure way to de-escalate the fear response is to stop ruminating, so practice changing the channel by recognizing when you’re ruminating and then substituting other thoughts (e.g., read a joke, focus on a task at hand, get up and walk around).
- Don’t over-consume news, social media, or other “urgent” sources of information. Just as rumination provides too much internal mental stimulation and can worsen the fear response, so can news, social media, or other seemingly-urgent outside “noise”provide too much negative stimulation that can cause your fear response to increase.
- Develop a growth mindset and learn to love the struggle. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, argues that developing a “growth mindset” can help us deal with novel situations, setbacks, and fears in a positive, productive way. A growth mindset is believing that you can change, grow, and continue to get better and stronger (as opposed to a “fixed mindset,” which is believing you’re your abilities are fixed and can’t be further developed), and, with practice, is something that every one of us can develop. Jo Boaler, author of Limitless, builds on this notion of the growth mindset and says that, once we become open to challenges and uncertainty, we become “unlocked” and see that the struggle for positive growth and change is good and a sign of brain growth – and not something to be avoided. Critically, the growth mindset and the embrace of the struggle for growth frees us from the fear of failure – one of the chief characteristics of the fixed mindset.
- Build your social support network. The Mayo Clinic advises that social isolation is associated with a greater risk of mental health issues (it also has other adverse health effects, such as higher mortality rates and higher risk of cardiovascular events); having a social support network of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, acquaintances, and others, whether formal or informal, is critical to establishing that foundation of mental strength we need to deal with fear when it arises. So it’s important to make it a practice to continually build and strengthen your community, using whatever tools you have available (with physical distancing now in place for most of us, we are fortunate to have phone calls, texts, emails, FaceTime chats, zoom and Skype meetings, social media, and other technology to allow us to maintain and strengthen our social connections at a distance). It’s still possible to attend a class together, catch a virtual music performance, hop on a conference or zoom call, and build our social networks.
- Know what brings you joy. Many of us have activities that we really love – singing, playing a musical instrument, doing a crossword puzzle, playing with our cat, listening to a favorite piece of music – but we don’t really pay too much attention to them, we just do them when we feel like it, or don’t do them at all because we get too busy with “important” stuff. But knowing the things that bring you joy, remembering them, and practicing them on a regular basis will give you an important tool for dealing with fear. It’s very difficult to be fearful when you’re doing something that truly brings you joy, so building joyful activities into your daily life is a key part of your preparation.
- Know your strengths – and use them. Each one of us has unique character strengths (like curiosity or a sense of humor) that we often take for granted in our day-to-day life – in fact, most of us are unaware of what our strengths really are, and don’t take full advantage of them. However, these character strengths are critical determinants of how we will react when danger strikes and fear arises, so it’s important to know what they are and to nurture them on a daily basis. The VIA Institute on Character (https://www.viacharacter.org) has a free character strengths survey that will help you discover your character strengths so you can practice them on a daily basis, turning them into powerful allies against fear.
- Remember that while you can’t control events, you can control your reactions. Epictetus, the slave-turned-philosophy-teacher and famed Stoic, taught about the dichotomy of control – that there are things within our control, and things outside of our control – and that we should focus only on those things we could control. He said that one of the very few things that were in our control was how we thought about and reacted to events – it was completely within our power to react well or badly, positively or negatively. And it’s always possible to make a bad situation much worse by how we think about and react to it; using the above techniques, we can develop the skill of controlling our thoughts and reactions to external events, practicing remaining calm and focused on what we can control, and not worrying about what we can’t.
In-the-moment practices to manage fear as it arises in the short term
Short-term physical practices to manage fear
- Notice the physical signs of fear. Oddly, even though fear is such a powerful response, we may overlook the telltale physical warning signs. Be mindful of the following physical signs of fear so that you are aware of what is happening to your body in the moment:
- Racing pulse
- Churning or upset stomach
- Sweaty palms and/or cold extremities
- Dry mouth
- Sensitivity to light (from dilated pupils)
- Muscle tension, especially hunched or tense neck and shoulders
- Foggy or confused thoughts
- Take a deep breath and exhale slowly and deeply. Once you notice any of the telltale warning signs of fear, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. The deep exhalation helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that helps restore the body to a calm, relaxed state (it’s sometimes called the “rest and digest” system for that reason).
- Relax your body from head to toe. Close your eyes and, starting with the top of your head and moving slowly down your body, notice the tension in each muscle and relax it completely before moving down the body to the next muscle. Your over-active sympathetic nervous system has tensed your muscles, so relaxing them helps de-activate it.
- Get up and walk around. Just moving around will relax your body, release tension in your head, neck, and shoulders, stimulate blood flow, relax you, and get you out of your own head. Better still, get up and walk around outside if you can, where you can see sunlight, trees, grass, and the beauty of nature.
Short-term mental practices to manage fear
- Recognize the mental signs of fear so you know it when it strikes. These include thoughts whirling, inability to focus or concentrate, feelings of anxiety, dread, fear, terror, endless repetition of the same bad events or outcomes over and over again, catastrophizing. Often we are fearful but don’t realize it, so it rages unabated and we become more and more afraid and unable to think or act. So the first step is recognizing it for what it is; it can also help to write down what you’re feeling or say it out loud, which will allow your brain to process and manage the fear more quickly.
- Don’t fight your fear: let it come, and let it go. Remember, fear is a full-body, physical and mental response to perceived danger – you literally can’t block it. However, you don’t have to let it overwhelm you or stop you. Once you recognize it for what it is, you can greet it as an old, familiar companion, let it pass through you, and then let it go. If you have been developing a meditation practice, this will come naturally to you, as meditation often involves the practice of letting stray thoughts come and go, since you can’t stop them.
- Question your fear. Once you begin to relax and let the initial wave of fear wash over you and leave you, you can begin to regain some control over your rational mind as blood flows back to your pre-frontal cortex. You can begin to interrogate your fear, and ask:
- Is what I’m afraid of real and/or true, or am I just perceiving danger where there really is none?
- If it is real/true, then is it as bad as I think it is, or am I just catastrophizing?
- Do I really know what the outcome of this is? Do I really know whether what I’m afraid of is ultimately good or bad? Can I really see the future with complete clarity?
By questioning your fear, you’ll begin to realize that most of what we’re afraid of in the moment (short of an actual, physical attack by another person, a wild animal, or a natural phenomenon like a fire or flood) is not as bad as you think it is, and that your fear is just doing what it does best: turning up the volume and amplifying itself so that you are fully mobilized to fight or flee whatever danger is perceived.
- Take a pause and reflect, however briefly, before responding out of fear. Too often when fear strikes, we respond immediately and impulsively before we have time to really think (that is, after all, part of the fear response). If you have taken the above steps, you will now be a bit calmer, a bit less fearful, and more in a position to take a moment to think and reflect before responding. Remember Epictetus and the Stoic maxim that nothing can harm us unless we believe that it can: it is the way we think about something that makes it either good or bad, not the thing itself. When you pause and take time to reflect before reacting out of fear, you can reframe the situation and realize that you have the power to interpret it in a way that allows you to see the potential opportunities and benefits, and not just the potential negatives.
- Focus on productive actions you can take rather than on your inner negative thoughts. Now that you’ve managed the initial burst of fear and have begun calming yourself and thinking a bit more rationally, you can turn your focus away from your fear and toward whatever you need to do in the moment – focusing on what you can do positively to make the situation better, rather than on ruminating and obsessing over the object of your fear. To draw your focus outward, it’s helpful to write down a list of things that you think you should be doing right now (rather than focusing on your fear), so that you can begin to take positive, constructive steps forward.
- Do one of the things that bring you joy. Now that you know what kinds of activities consistently bring you joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction, you can rely on them in a moment of fear to help bring you out of it. Take a break to walk to the piano and play one of your favorite songs, play with your cat, write a poem, read one of your favorite short stories, do a crossword puzzle – whatever your joy-bringing activities are, select one of them when you need help getting through a bout of fear.
- Reach out to your social support network. If you’ve been working consistently and diligently on your community of friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances, you will find this resource readily available to help you when fear strikes. Pick up the phone and connect with a friend in whom you can confide; send a text to your partner and tell them you need a hug right now; put a post out on social media and ask for support. Your network will be there for you, you just need to reach out and ask.
- Have a laugh. Finally, it always helps to have a laugh. The physical act of laughter itself defuses both physical and mental tension, can snap you out of a negative frame of mind quickly, and can hit the reset button so you can free yourself from the paralysis of fear. It’s easy enough to find a funny joke, story, picture, GIF, or video on the internet, so there’s no excuse not to laugh a little when things get scary.
These are some of my favorite long-term and short-term practices for dealing with fear; there are, of course, many others. I’d love to hear some of your techniques for managing fear, so please share them in the comments or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some favorite quotes to help you embrace and manage your fear
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few favorite quotes that help me manage fear. Here are just a few of them:
O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted!
To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand!
To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face!
To mount the scaffold, to
advance to the muzzles of guns with
To be indeed a God!
- Walt Whitman, A Song of Joys
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Go to the Limits of your Longing
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I
will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
- Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, Frank Herbert, Dune
I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.
Do the thing you fear most, and the death of fear is certain.
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.
The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.
- Mark Twain
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat these two impostors just the same
Then yours is the world and everything in it …
- If, Rudyard Kipling