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How to Combat Fear and Anxiety

What’s the difference, and tips on how to manage both.

Key points

  • Fear and anxiety are similar because they put us on high alert for action and trigger an increase in adrenaline.
  • Experiencing fear and anxiety together can interfere with our ability to move forward with daily life.
  • A good support system can make a huge difference in handling your fears and anxieties.
Combatting fear and anxiety
Source: iStock/Joe_McUbed

We are trying to move forward. We are returning to work, gathering for celebrations, and pursuing family building. But many of us still feel fear or anxiety, and some feel both. How are fear and anxiety similar, how are they different, and what can we do about them?

Fear and anxiety are similar because they put us on high alert for action and trigger an increase in adrenaline, which then triggers the fight or flight response. Since adrenaline increases respiration, sweating, and heart rate, both fear and anxiety can give us shallow rapid panting, clammy hands, and a pounding in our chest that distracts or worries us. Both are designed to deal with short-term emergencies, not a years-long pandemic, separation from family and friends, or difficult fertility journeys.

Although they have these similarities, fear and anxiety are inherently different. Anxiety is our response to an unknown threat or uncertainty, and fear is our response to a real, known threat or danger. In other words, when we can’t predict what’s coming next, our brain is wired to be prepared, just in case. That’s anxiety. When we know what’s coming next and it seems dangerous, we are wired to get ready for fight or flight mode. That’s fear.

Experiencing fear or anxiety for an extended time is psychologically and physically challenging – but experiencing both together is exhausting. It can interfere with our ability to move forward with our daily life. Here are some tips on managing anxiety, fear, and a combination of both.

Three Ways to Manage Anxiety

  1. Remind yourself that you’re in control at this moment. Any anticipated change can trigger anxiety, even good change like seeing coworkers again, finalizing a wedding, or starting a family, because we can’t predict what's coming next. Manage those uneasy feelings by dropping the imaginary “what ifs” and bringing yourself back to the here and now. At this moment, you are in control, and nothing frightening or disappointing is happening. Focus on the room around you, the sounds, colors, and even your breathing. Then close your eyes and narrow your world to just you. Repeat as needed!
  2. Don’t try to escape your anxiety by ignoring it or avoiding the situations that trigger it. If you avoid situations that make you anxious, you will gradually stop doing things you want or need to do. If that happens, when your anxiety subsides, you will usually need to try to do those things again – and live through the same anxiety-avoidance cycle again. Instead, become an observer, move forward despite your anxiety, and see if the situation is as bad as you expect. At least it will be behind you, and your anxiety reactions will lose some of their power over you.
  3. Counterbalance your anxiety with positive predictions. This works because we can’t be in two opposing states simultaneously. If we have to wait for the future unknowns, we might as well wait with hope in our hearts rather than anxiety. For example, I reassure my patients who are going through fertility treatment that hope will not jinx future outcomes, and negative predictions will not protect them against disappointment if a treatment round fails. Choose optimism.

Three ways to manage fear

  1. Get physical and put your body in motion. Unlike anxiety, which is experienced as an emotion, fear is physical. Of course, our brain responds, but we usually know we are fearful because our body is ready for life-saving action. We become hypervigilant (irritable, startle easily, and have a hard time sleeping), hyperactive (jittery and jumpy), and start hyperventilating (panting, dry mouth, and cold). If you don’t need the adrenaline for a real emergency, try burning it up by cleaning the closet, dancing, or playing with the dog – you get the idea. It’s a double bonus if the activity distracts you from your fear and restores your sense of control.
  2. Slow down your breathing. If you are stuck at a desk, on a bus, or about to give a speech, the fastest way to slow down the adrenaline flow is practicing slow and easy diaphragm breathing. It’s the way we breathe when we're asleep and signals the brain that everything's okay. Instead of deep chest-filled gulps of air, it involves only the belly to rise and fall and pause in between breaths. Just counting from 10 back to 1 as you take a breath each time is enough to help you turn off those fear feelings.
  3. Try to behave as if you are not afraid. It works because our body can’t be in two opposing states simultaneously. Make the messages even more evident by stretching. Simple stretching signals the body and brain that there is no danger because when there is, we curl up in a ball to protect our vital organs. Besides, stretching reminds our body how it feels when we are NOT fearful and tense. In other words, signal your fear that it is not “needed or heeded,” and it will diminish.

Three Ways to Manage Anxiety and Fear

  1. If you are dealing with anxiety and fear right now, being busy is best. Daily to-do lists, goals, and projects will help you focus on constructive plans rather than worrying, watching, and waiting. We are built for daily life, so look for your daily purpose, and fear and anxiety will take a back seat.
  2. Find time to play and laugh. Play and laughter are inborn ways of counteracting fear. Share funny memes, gifs, and jokes with friends or download games and puzzles. Think of them as forms of self-care. They increase your sense of control and connectedness and remind you that you are not facing your fears alone.
  3. Don’t forget to exercise. Since anxiety is associated with low serotonin in the brain and exercise raises serotonin levels, even a simple walk can make you feel less anxious and fearful. Exercise also increases dopamine levels, which can help depression – a triple win.

Last but certainly not least, be sure there is someone you can talk to about your fears and anxieties. Not any listener will do, though. Choose those who can empathize, so you know they understand, and those who will let you finish talking so you can hear yourself.

A good support system can make a huge difference. Be your support system, too, be patient and comforting with yourself, and find a mantra that comforts you. My favorite is “This too will pass” because both fear and anxiety always do.

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