Updated: Mar 13
Fear is a natural and primitive emotion in response to a real or perceived imminent threat. All emotions have their purpose, even those that feel painful or unpleasant. Fear and the human ability to worry about potential threats to survival are what helped to keep our ancestors alive and allowed us to continue our species. The primary job of our brain is to keep us alive by protecting us. Our brain does this by scanning our environment for potential threats. When we perceive something as a threat, we are likely to experience fear and this activates a cascade of processes in the body including the activation of our automatic ‘fight or flight’ response. When this biochemical reaction is triggered, our body starts to prepare us to ‘fight back’ or ‘run away’. As such, we may experience a range of symptoms including but not limited to increased heart rate, feeling hot, sweating, muscle tension, dizziness or light-headedness, upset stomach, forgetfulness, trembling or shaking.
As humans, we like to be able to predict and control everything. As such, our minds are often thinking ahead in order to anticipate obstacles to fix or problem-solve. This is one way we, as humans, try to gain a sense of control and minimise feelings of anxiety. Unfortunately, our minds cannot discriminate between a very real threat or danger standing in front of us versus a thought or image that pops into our mind. As such, our brain and body responds in the same way regardless of whether the threat is imminent or whether it’s just a scary thought or image in our mind.
Chronic worry or thinking ahead can often lead to excessive feelings of anxiety or trepidation particularly with problems in our lives that do not have a simple fix or solution. It is completely natural for our minds to worry. Times of extreme uncertainty and unpredictability often trigger worry and feelings of unease. Other things that can trigger our brains to worry include novel experiences (i.e., events where we don’t have a previous experience to fall back on or guide us), unexpected situations (i.e., those we haven’t been able to prepare for), as well as ambiguous events (i.e., those with an unknown trajectory or outcome).
The constant ‘what ifs’ (i.e., ‘What if I lose my job?’; ‘What if I don’t cope?’; ‘What if my family or I get sick?’; ‘What if everything falls apart?’) and our imagination of the worst-case scenarios can mislead us into believing we are being productive by anticipating possible problems or obstacles to fix. While anticipating potential problems to solve can certainly be helpful at times, excessive worry can be debilitating and depleting, it can prevent us from engaging in goal-directed behaviour and it often pulls us away from connecting with our values or what truly matters.
Below are some tips to help you to cope with anxiety and times of uncertainty:
1. Ground yourself. During times of uncertainty it is easy to succumb to fear and get carried away by our thoughts and emotions. It is important to remember feelings are valid but they are not always the most useful guides. During challenging times we can often find ourselves catastrophising, which heightens anxiety, reduces our ability to think clearly or make sensible decisions and may lead us to withdrawing or turning to unhelpful coping strategies. Using our breath as an anchor can be a helpful way to centre us in the midst of an emotional storm. It allows us to come back to the present moment where our body is and where our limbs are. Simply pausing for a few moments and taking some deep belly breaths helps to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the branch of our nervous system that facilitates digestion, rest and regeneration. Using our 5 senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, and sight) is another way we can broaden our awareness and ground ourselves in the present moment by gently paying attention to our sensory experiences (e.g., noticing the sensation of the sun or breeze on your face, noticing the smell of the ocean breeze, paying attention to the appearance of a single blade of grass, the sound of the birds or the flavours in your meal).
2. Turn toward rather than away. It sounds counterintuitive but turning toward our emotions rather than away from them can be a helpful way to move through difficult moments. It makes absolute sense that we would want to avoid or run away from anything that feels emotionally, physically or psychologically painful. However, by doing so we can often intensify and prolong our painful emotions and whilst they may disappear for a short time they will inevitably return at some point in the future. Practise turning toward your emotions by labelling them (i.e., ‘I am sad’; ‘I am scared’), gently notice where they show up in your body and put a gentle hand on that area. Physical touch can be a helpful way to soothe discomfort, reduce accumulated tension, and remind us that we are safe here in this moment.
3. Cultivate kindness and compassion. When we are threat-focussed or feel scared it can be natural for us to be egocentric and/or critical or punishing of others and ourselves. Harnessing compassion can strengthen our immune system, increase resilience, it allows us to connect more deeply with others, and improves our overall mental health and wellbeing. Practising compassion towards others and ourselves can help us to gain perspective, broaden our awareness and shift our focus of attention. As such, it is a powerful way to manage anxiety. We are biologically wired to respond to kindness and nurturance from others. Research also shows that kindness towards ourselves is essential in helping us to navigate life’s obstacles and take valued action. Try to cultivate compassion by speaking to yourself the way you would speak to someone you care deeply about. It is a skill, so be patient with yourself and practise it whenever you can. Following a Loving-Kindness guided meditation can be a great place to start.
4. Develop a worry time. Set aside time to worry. Sounds strange, right? Worry postponement can be an effective way to let go of worry. Dedicate 20 – 30 minutes at the end of your day for worry. Throughout the day, whenever a worry thought shows up, briefly jot it down (on paper or in your phone), remind yourself that you can come back to it at the end of the day, let it go for now and refocus your attention on what you were doing before that thought popped up. This practice can be a helpful way to set boundaries and contain our worry so that it does not interfere with our daily tasks. At the end of the day, use your dedicated worry time to go through your list of worry thoughts. Sort through the ones that you can control and see if you can find practical solutions for these concerns. For those worries that you cannot control, just notice them, respond compassionately to yourself, and take valued action (i.e., call a friend, meditate, hug someone you care about, listen to your favourite song, write in your journal).
5. Let go of your thoughts. When we feel scared or anxious it is easy to get caught up in our thoughts. See if you can notice these thoughts as they arise and gently step back and watch them go by like clouds passing in the sky. Our mind is very good at catastrophising and thinking about the worst-case scenario. However, the worst-case scenario usually does not eventuate, and if it does, we can learn to cope with the stressor when and if it happens. When difficult thoughts, feelings, memories or urges are triggered, it can help to remind yourself that, “this too shall pass”.
6. Maintain balance. Eating foods that nourish you, getting sufficient good quality sleep and moving your body are essential for building resilience and managing anxiety. Focussing on these elements is also powerful because it can help us to concentrate on what we can control whilst letting go of the uncertainty and the things around us that we cannot control.
7. Practise gratitude. Gratitude is a great way to expand our awareness and refocus our attention particularly during times of uncertainty. Make a habit of taking time to reflect on one to three things you are grateful for each day and write these down on paper (e.g., ‘I am grateful for the sun shining during my walk this morning’ or ‘I am grateful to the farmer’s who made this meal possible’).
8. Stay connected. We are social beings and social connection is essential to our physical and psychological well-being and healing. During challenging times it is especially important we stay connected with others. Identify people in your life that you can turn to during challenging times. This could be a friend, family member and/or mental health professional. Remember, you are never alone and support is always available.
Blog written by Dinusha Cragg (Clinical Psychologist and Clinic Director)