How to Stop Fear from Controlling You
The numbers don't lie: A lot of us are living in fear. And we're afraid of things we can't necessarily control. An October 2017 survey by Chapman University indicated that more than a half of people in the U.S. are either “afraid” or “very afraid” of government corruption, health care reform and pollution of oceans, lakes and rivers, the top three fears of Americans today. Nearly half of people are afraid the U.S. will be involved in another world war.
According to a March Gallup poll, 40 percent of people worry "a great deal" about another terrorist attack happening in the U.S. And although there is between a one in 5 million and one in 20 million chance of dying in a plane crash, and a one in 45,808 chance of dying in a terrorist attack, those fears loom large in our collective psyche.
What is making us so afraid?
Fear levels in the U.S. have been high for quite some time, said Barry Glassner, author of "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things," in an article published in TIME. But one change is the "proliferation of the politics of fear," the article states, with "politicians, companies and the media" contributing to widespread feelings of unease in recent years, he said.
With the sheer volume of news coverage due to the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle and importance of social shares, it can feel like the media focuses only on catastrophes, possible threats and the most dramatic world news. Especially in our polarized political environment, where fear is often used as an effective campaign tactic, it can be easy to feel scared. All of that on top of the deeply personal fears we each have.
Despite how easy it can be to let fear lead our lives, it’s important for our mental health and general well-being to actively work against it. What can you do to alter your relationship with fear? Experts shared their opinions:
1. Capture those anxiety-inducing thoughts
Make note of your thoughts that begin with “What if…?” For each thought, assess how you’d handle that situation if it were to occur.
“Developing a plan for worst-case scenarios helps create a sense of control while significantly lowering anxiety,” Colorado-based couples counselor Wyatt Fisher said. "Also, it helps to discuss your fears with trusted family members and friends to get additional perspective.”
2. Be aware, but don't fixate
“The source of modern fear, and how to conquer it, is through awareness,” health and wellness expert Caleb Backe said.
There are lots of things we don’t know: about ourselves and others, the future, life in general, our own mortality and more. That can leave us with a fear of the unknown. But exploring these topics can also cause fear.
“We’re meant to walk the line of continually learning and discovering more, but the problem is, the more you know, the more you become aware of what you don’t know," Backe said. "Awareness is what causes irrational, non-traditional and non-instinctive fear. However, those fears aid us in development and growth if we let them."
3. Practice mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness teaches you how to pay attention to the present moment. First, get into the habit of simply noticing the types of thoughts that cause you anxiety. Next, practice deep breathing to help you cope with those anxious thoughts.
“By doing this, you train the mind and body how to relax more readily,” mental health expert and writer Emily Mendez said.
Meditation can take many forms—whether it be sitting on the floor of a quiet room, taking a walk outside, knitting or gardening. A meditative mindset can bring a peaceful quality to many other areas of your life.
4. Develop personal mantras and affirmations
So many of our fears bloom from chronic loops of self-doubt and worry. To get out of this cycle, change the mental record you play for yourself.
A positive personal mantra can provide an uplifting message while providing a powerful go-to method for easing your mind.
“By repeating powerful and positive phrases about how you want to feel and be, you will alter your thoughts and beliefs,” California-based psychologist Carla Marie Manly said. “What you think is what you become.”
A mantra is not one-size-fits-all—it’s important for each person to create a mantra that’s suitable for them.
5. Employ logic
Ask yourself, “what exactly do I fear and how realistic is that fear?” In many cases, the feared outcome will be so unlikely or the risk so low, we’ll recognize the issue isn’t worth worrying about, Florida-based psychotherapist Arlene B.Englander said.
“By being logical, we employ the part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex, the command center for logic and decision-making, to overrule the amygdala, which produces emotions and the famous 'fight or flight' feelings,” Englander said.
6. Take control of what you can, accept the things you can’t
“Some things are out of your hands—but there are things you can do to feel safer in certain situations," security writer Bri Jensen said. "Depending on what worries you most, you can take preventative measures like carrying pepper spray when you’re out late at night, installing sensor lights for your home, or telling your friends which trail you’ll be on if you go on a solo hike.
“Once you’ve made the changes you can, let go of the fears you can’t do anything about. While you can control your own actions and influence your situation to a degree, there’s very little you can do to control the actions of others. Try to avoid spending emotional and mental energy on things you can’t impact.”
7. Recognize that some fear is healthy
Don’t feel the need to protect yourself from fear entirely. A healthy amount of fear can help us protect ourselves and navigate our lives safely.
“Feeling fear as it comes to mind is a physiological response to a perceived threat, which is the mind's way of responding to something uncomfortable,” Florida-based psychologist Dara Bushman said. “Experiencing rational fear helps us focus and practice careful decision-making.”