Almost 40 million Americans have at some stage been diagnosed with anxiety – and in truth, there are likely to be tens of millions more who’ve never sought help.
Unchecked anxiety can have a huge impact on your life. In mild forms, it can strip away the confidence you deserve and hold you back – but in the most extreme cases, the feelings it causes can drive people to take their own lives.
Whether your anxiety is a mild inconvenience or a huge, defining part of your life, it’s important to remember that there are ways to overcome fear and anxious feelings. Here, we’ve listed five therapist-approved strategies that will help you deal with the feelings of fear and worry that come when your anxiety levels ramp up.
You might feel like fear and anxiety are unwanted guests that hi-jack your brain’s controls in an effort to ruin your day – but in truth, anxiety is really just a series of chemical processes playing out in your body.
If you want to know how to overcome fear, it’s really useful to know why you’re feeling it in the first place.
There are different types of anxiety disorder. The most common is referred to as ‘Generalized Anxiety Disorder’ or GAD for short. GAD is a feeling of fear that’s seemingly unprovoked; not necessarily relating to any situation or prior experience. While GAD is the most common anxiety diagnosis, there are others, including:
These types of anxiety disorder tend to be more associated with certain situations or life event. For instance, someone with PTSD might feel a sudden onset of anxiety in a situation that consciously or unconsciously reminds them of past trauma – or someone with a social phobia might struggle in particular social circumstances; like using public transport, for example.
In the heat of the moment, it can be very difficult to be rational and think about what’s brought your anxiety on – but often really useful to start joining the dots and putting together an anxiety profile or journal after the event. Think about:
There’s an almost never-ending list of potential questions – so try to note down anything you think of, even if it seems irrelevant. Over time, looking back at your journal might help you to spot reoccurring patterns that you weren’t necessarily aware of at the time. Anxiety can be driven by your subconscious mind – and if you want to know how to deal with fear, it’s always a good idea to know what you’re working with.
Whatever brings your anxiety to the fore, the chemical process that’s happening inside you is likely to be very similar.
Whether you’re imagining something bad that might happen, or you’re in the middle of a trauma playing out in real-time, your body is releasing stress hormones – primarily adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are designed to ready your body for ‘flight or fight’ – either being able to run from the danger or tackle it head-on.
When this happens, your body reacts in a number of weird and wonderful ways – so you might expect:
As strange, worrying, or stressful as all this is, it’s important to remember that these feelings are absolutely normal. You’re not weak; you don’t need to toughen-up, and, given time, you will calm down. This reaction has developed in humans over tens of thousands of years. When functioning properly, the process helps to keep us alive – but when it’s slightly misaligned, it can put lots of unnecessary hurdles in our way.
Part of the problem with anxiety comes down to how our brains are wired. If you want to know how to get over fear, it’s useful to know how to do a bit of rewiring.
The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe – so we’re going to talk in simple terms; but to understand what happens when anxiety kicks in, it’s handy to get an overview of how subconscious decisions play out in your grey matter.
Most people put a certain shoe on first when they get dressed or leave the house.
Because we always put that shoe on first. We don’t think about it; we just do it.
We make thousands of choices on ‘auto-pilot’ like this every day. When we’re faced with the decision, your brain knows what you normally do – so rather than bring the choice into your conscious mind, it just handles the choice automatically. Becoming anxious is often one of these decisions.
Getting over fear involves taking control of the decision to be afraid or anxious. Don’t misunderstand; it might not feel like a decision right now, so this can be a long process – but it’s a mountain that you can climb.
This is where positive visualization is incredibly useful.
When you find yourself in a comfortable, stress-free environment, think about the kind of situation that makes you anxious – then, think about an alternative way of dealing with the problem.
It might help to imagine you’re giving someone else advice on how to keep anxiety at bay – or you might decide it’s useful to write your alternative strategy down, or perhaps even draw what you’re thinking about. The key is to reinforce positive action in your mind. Think about the way you’d like to deal with the situation and visualize doing exactly that – no catastrophes, no problems, run through the ideal realistic outcome in your mind.
This is how you begin rewiring your brain’s subconscious. It’s sometimes quick – and it sometimes takes a long time, but in anxiety-mode, your brain falls back on tried and tested coping mechanisms. Give your mind an alternative pathway, and you’re a step closing to controlling your fear.
Sometimes, a very mildly fearful situation can descend into feelings of absolute terror and catastrophe in your mind very quickly – and again, it’s your body’s auto-pilot response that’s often to blame.
If you want to know how to get over fears, it’s a good idea to try to catch your anxious response as early as possible.
Your breathing is usually the very best place to do this.
We already know that your body is going to ramp your breathing rate up to get ready for any potential danger – but since that disaster could just be in your head, calming your breathing down helps to put the brakes on before the process runs away with you unnecessarily.
Fortunately, this isn’t a complicated task. In fact, you might even have a phone or watch app that’ll help.
If it’s safe to do so, close your eyes and try to focus as much as possible on your breath. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, hold it for a moment, then let it back out through your mouth, again as slowly as you can. If you can, you should aim to repeat this at least 4-5 times. This isn’t a trick to distract you; it’s a tried-and-tested scientific way of reducing fear and halting the anxious response before it takes hold.
Mindfulness is virtually everywhere – from apps to adult coloring books; thousands of companies are tapping into this psychology buzzword.
While it can help some people to have some guidance, mindfulness doesn’t need to be any more complicated than simply sitting down somewhere quiet and trying to observe your thoughts.
The word ‘trying’ is important here – no one expects you to be a master; mindfulness is a practice – not something you have to be especially skilled at.
Find a quiet space where you’re unlikely to be interrupted for a few minutes, then sit comfortably and close your eyes. It’s useful to relax with some deep breathing again – but don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to have a clear or empty mind for mindfulness to work.
The skill to mindfulness is to simply observe thoughts as they pop into your head. Some people find it useful to imagine a still body of water and imagine that thoughts coming into your head are bubbles, rising to the surface. As you catch yourself thinking about something, go back to that thought of the water and let the bubble pop, letting the thought go with it.
It’s useful to avoid being judgemental about the thoughts that appear into your head. Rather than thinking of them as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘anxious’, or anything else – just observe as they come and go. If you find yourself caught up with one, try to re-focus on your breathing and let it slip away.
The idea behind mindfulness is giving yourself an ‘observer’s view’ of your brain at work. This is tricky; after all, you and your thoughts are so often caught up as just one entity – but actually, your thoughts are often just a habit – distinct from what is truly ‘you’.
With some practice, mindfulness helps you identify thoughts as their own entities – and when you’re looking at how to control fear, this is absolutely vital. Over thousands of years, anxiety has developed to help us avoid danger – but in truth, most of the danger we imagine never plays out in real life.
Mindfulness is a skill to work on for a few minutes whenever you can – ideally each day. By practicing it somewhere quiet and safe, you’re preparing yourself to use the skill when you run into an instance that makes you anxious. When the time comes, being able to recognize that anxiety is just an unhelpful thought process is one of the best ways to overcome fear before it even begins.