4 Ways to Manage Fear and Anxiety In An Uncertain World (And Why You Need To)
We’ve talked a lot about self-care at The Wellness Project, more recently focusing on Self-Care for Activists In Times of Social Change. Some of the strategies we shared include: being mindful of a negative mindset, fact-checking your news, regulating your social media, knowing your values, making space for downtime, setting boundaries, checking in with your emotions, and connecting to your community. Since that November 2019 post, our need for these strategies has heightened even further. That’s because global and local levels of fear and anxiety are off the charts.
The world is on fire, literally and figuratively. A new virus is rapidly spreading. Brexit is in effect. The right wing is rising. We might face another four years in a world with Trump as President. And that doesn’t include the devastating conditions we’re facing in Lebanon politically, economically and socially. The corruption and callousness. The banks in free-fall. The currency dropping. The people fleeing the country. The Thawra continuing and the government…well…enough said. The energy is heavy and depressing. It’s all you can do not to weep, and weep most of us do. It’s harder with every day that passes to believe that a positive way out is within reach. We’re torn between hope and fear, tentative excitement and grief.
Right now, fear and grief are tipping the balance, and for good reason. Day to day life has become unspeakably difficult, and most of the reasons for this are completely out of our control. So what do we do? How do we nurture a flame of hope and stay sane? We take back what control we can.
Understanding the Impact of Fear & Anxiety
Julie Hanus, in her 2009 article for the Utne Reader, wrote:
For the first time in history, fear is tearing society apart. In the past, fear has engendered solidarity…Contemporary fear throws wedges between us. This isolation, in turn, renders the public ever more fearful. What’s more, media outlets, politicians, and businesses all have learned to capitalize on this distinctly modern sense of dread, and thus profit from finding ways to cultivate it. Until we find a way to resist fear, we’ll live at the mercy of these emotional entrepreneurs—and in doing so, be party to the personal, cultural, and political consequences.
Fear is a psychological and biological response to an actual concrete immediate threat. And there are real immediate threats. So fear is justified. Anxiety is largely a reaction to uncertainty- it looks toward a fragile future in which catastrophic possibilities can be imagined. Clearly, under current conditions, anxiety is understandable too. But, neither fear nor anxiety are helping you. They damage your mental and physical well-being. They also have a profoundly negative effect on your decision-making, because you respond reactively rather than reflectively to your problems. Fear and anxiety make you, and the rest of society, easy to manipulate. Gregory Berns, in his 2008 New York Times article In Hard Times, Fear Can Impair Decision-Making, expresses it perfectly:
Fear prompts retreat. It is the antipode to progress. Just when we need new ideas most, everyone is seized up in fear, trying to prevent losing what we have left.
The most concrete thing that neuroscience tells us is that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off. The first order of business, then, is to neutralize that system.
So how should you go about neutralizing your fear system then? We’re going to share 4 essential ways that help you do just that. While they may change nothing about the world around you, they change the way you respond to that world.
1. Neutralize Your Environment
I’ve already said I’m not suggesting you cut yourself off from news and media at a time when involvement and awareness is key. You should be involved and get involved, on the ground, online, and in your communities, in whatever way feels accessible and within your capacity. Here are 7 ways to be active in your community in times of social change for that very purpose.
However, I am going to suggest that you shape your environment so that you have spaces to escape and rejuvenate from anxiety/fear triggers. As we mentioned in Self-Care for Activists In Times of Social Change, you want to set boundaries, regulate your media exposure (so you can have periods of time without it), and make space for downtime.
When that down-time is in your own home, you can boost your relaxation levels by following these simple steps. Following them, helps not only create calm, but order. Surrounded by clutter? It spikes your anxiety and overwhelms you further. And environmental order helps create mental order, and thus, at least a small sense of mental control. Mobilizing to enact this order also creates movement. When you’re anxious and afraid, you feel stuck, paralyzed. This helps you shift out of that.
What else? When you’re out of your home, interacting with others, you may wish to draw the line in conversations about issues on days when your bandwidth is too low. That’s boundaries. When you’re looking at your phone (which we all do far too much), you may wish to turn notifications off from social media and news apps that send you alerts. That way, when you do engage with them, it’s intentional.
Finally, if you’re able to take advantage of the outdoors, try to go for a walk, a hike, or a picnic in nature. It will lower your cortisol levels and help ground you. Speaking of grounding…
2. Neutralize Your Body
How do you take your body out of fear and anxiety? You convince it that it’s safe, as often as possible. Whether or not this is the truth is besides the point- and this is not intended to lull you into complacency. When your body is calm, you think more clearly. Your breathing is slower, your nervous system is not spiking, your heart beat is even. You can deal with the challenges you’re faced with from a place of strategy. What may help you achieve this? Again, nothing we haven’t mentioned before, but nothing that isn’t worth another day in the sun.
You know that thing I said about feeling stuck and paralyzed by anxiety? What better way to facilitate an ‘unsticking’ than with a bit of exercise. Actual physical movement releases you from that sense of being taken hostage. This is both literal and figurative. The smallest bit of exercise reduces anxiety by producing endorphins, boosting oxygen levels, and releasing tension. You can do this at home, using youtube, with no equipment, for 10 minutes or less.
Another fantastic strategy that takes your body out of fight or flight? Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing. Your breath helps you regulate your nervous system, release tension, and soothe yourself. You can create this change in your system in just a few moments. Find a great youtube video to guide you through the process, or check the resources in our blog A Deep Breathing Practice for Daily Life.
3. Neutralize Your Mind
Our mind is a wonderful tool and a dangerous adversary if we haven’t gotten a handle on it. When it comes to fear and anxiety, your mind often needs the most attention. The good news (in this particular context only) is that it’s pretty easy to manipulate. In fact, by neutralizing your environment and body, you’ve already started taking action in shaping your mind. But there’s more you can do to make sure it’s working in your favor. Mindfulness Meditation is one of these steps.
With mindfulness meditation, you learn to sit quietly and observe the present moment- your thoughts, sensations, and feelings (we will focus on this last one next). You learn to sit with the fear and not feel you have to act when you experience it. Try the 5 minute mindfulness meditation we share in this blog.
One amazing thing mindfulness does is it helps you develop a healthy sense of personal control. You understand what’s within your control and outside of it. You learn acceptance in situations that cannot be changed.
You can elevate this relationship with control by introducing a mantra or prayer. A good example of the latter is the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. You don’t vibe well with religious language? Change it: I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Still don’t like it? Find another one. Even better, write your own!. The words we speak to ourselves matter.
Speaking of words that matter, watch your thoughts. Fact check your fears. If you are constantly having negative thoughts or catastrophizing, you may need to work on doing some reframing. Remember, this isn’t about denying reality, it’s by asking yourself ‘is this thought true?’, or ‘are there other possible outcomes’, or even, ‘is this thought helpful and productive?’.
Other questions can even help your mind find meaning in the chaos. Tinu Su, in an article for Think Simple Now blog, suggests the following: What if we looked for the gift in the perceived adversity…What can I learn from this situation? How can I use this adversity to become a better person? How can I use this opportunity to serve others and myself? What can I do to gain the clarity I need, to shift into a more resourceful state?
There is a lot outside of your control. Toxic people making bad decisions that are pulling the rug right out from under your life. This sucks, but all that you have is the choice between a variety of responses to the situation. This approach to your thoughts helps you make a specific choice.
So in this vein, work to cultivate more helpful thoughts! Perhaps (gasp) even positive thoughts. Your brain has a negativity bias, and finding the silver linings in your day helps to make you more resilient and emotionally balanced (again, more on this last point next). A gratitude practice is a winner in making this happen for you. Don’t believe me? Read more about why this works right here. A gratitude practice helps you notice the small moments, the things you do have, the parts of your life you do control, the community that shares in your struggle and which your self-care impacts too.
What’s next, last but not least? I’ve hinted a few times…
4. Neutralize the Place Where Your Mind and Body Meet- Your Emotions!
Your emotions impact your physical responses. Your physical responses affect your emotions. Your emotions affect your thoughts. Your thoughts affect your emotions which affect your physical responses which affect your thoughts. You get the picture. It all works together, in one flow. Obviously. Which means, steps 1 to 3 that I’ve already covered already help you achieve more emotional health in times of anxiety and fear. Calm spaces, good boundaries, exercise, nature, mindfulness, breathing. I’m not going to run through why each specific one helps your emotional balance in particular. But I’m going to add one final thing to the list: Avoid avoidance. Anxiety in particular is a signal of underlying emotions that have been pushed aside and need expression.
As Hilary Hendel, LCSW, says:
We block fears and other core emotions with muscular constriction, holding our breath, coming out of our body, and many other ways. So now, instead of experiencing our core emotions, we experience anxiety. In a way, knowing this is great news! Because now, when we have anxiety, there is something we can do to ease it: we can look for the underlying emotions. In fact, with practice, any time we feel anxiety, we will immediately remember to look for the underlying core emotions coming up and tend to them in healthy and safe ways.
One safe and healthy way to tend to your emotions is to give them space. Acknowledge them. And one of the best ways to create a practice out of this acknowledgement is to do daily Emotional Check-ins. This is basically just a reflective journaling (best approach) or thinking exercise where you take a few deep breaths, and focus on making space for what you are feeling right there and then.
Steps could include:
1- Tuning into sensations in your body that let you know what emotions you may be feeling; fluttering, heat, tension, tightness.
2- Asking simply: ‘How am I feeling right now’, and giving specific responses with various emotional vocabulary. If you need help with this look up an emotion wheel.
3- Consider what is causing each emotion.
4- Simply acknowledge its source, that it’s there, and how it is impacting you at this time.
And that’s all folks. Hope this helps, and sending all the love, light, and strength as we locally, globally, collectively experience painful transitions.