Every few weeks, we hear news of tragedy striking somewhere in the world. Between school shootings, terrorist attacks, suicide bombers and other acts of violence, some who are not directly impacted still find themselves reeling in fear.
For most of us, fear comes and goes without much commotion. But for some, fear doesn’t resolve on its own without a conscious effort to manage it and can lead to bigger problems like substance abuse, depression and trauma. So, what can you do to put your fears in check?
A lot of people run from fear. And while it may be advisable at some point to take a break from disturbing images in the news, turning a blind eye completely or avoiding anything that reminds you of what’s happening won’t help.
“Fear isn’t some ominous energy that attacks us, or a negativity inside of us that we can’t control,” says Friedemann Schaub, MD, PhD, author of The Fear and Anxiety Solution and a 20-year veteran in the medical field who specializes in harnessing the power of the subconscious mind to help people heal.
In fact, fear is essential for our survival. “Underlying our fear of danger is our love for life, our desire to stay here on Earth, to protect our own safety and that of our loved ones,” says Tara Sophia Mohr, a women’s leadership and well-being coach and author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message. As such, it isn’t something to suppress or ignore or self-medicate. In fact, doing so actually makes us more anxious and depressed and can have negative long-term consequences. “When we feel afraid, but aren’t aware of or in touch with our own fear, we act out of it unconsciously, and then it can easily mislead us and block our best thinking and our wisest actions.”
In order to address fear, you first have to recognize it. Slow down and check in with how you’re feeling (grab a friend or journal for help doing this). Allow yourself to feel the emotion fully and extend compassion to yourself for however you’re feeling, Mohr advises. “It might feel very intense for a few moments, but in feeling it, you really will move through the intense feelings to the other side,” she says.
Give fear a shape.
Fear typically comes from a part of the mind that feels powerless, incapable and small, based on feelings from early on in life, Dr. Schaub explains. He recommends imagining that fear has the shape and appearance of a child and speaking to that child as though you are a nurturing parent. “I have found this to be an effective way to interrupt the fear spiral because you’re switching from feeling anxious to being a source of comfort and support.” It also empowers people to take charge of their emotions and separate their fear from the rest of who they are.
Focus on your present reality.
Fear sometimes results because people take what they see on the news, which is vividly and disturbingly depicted by commentators who are right there in the moment, and adopt it as their personal reality. “Even though these events are terrible tragedies, the mind overgeneralizes and tells us ‘this is how life is, I’m not safe,’” says Dr. Schaub. As a result, “the natural ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered and we feel as though we are ourselves in imminent danger.”
And when we’re in the midst of “fight or flight,” “we simply can’t do our best thinking,” says Mohr. “Higher-level functioning actually shuts down.” In order to accurately assess the threat, we have to first calm down, whether through venting to someone, practicing deep breathing, listening to relaxing music or some other grounding process.
It’s human nature to overgeneralize our fears. When we encounter a threat, Mohr explains, we quickly develop a fear not only of that threat, but of a much broader set of things associated with it. For example, if you make a loud, startling noise every time a white rat appears near a baby, as researchers did in an early study, the baby displays a fear response to the white rat, even in the absence of a loud noise. The baby also develops a fear of other white fluffy objects, and even other white things in general.
“We can see this overgeneralization playing out today,” Mohr says. “It is very hard for our brains to differentiate between the specific threat of domestic terrorism and a whole host of associated people and things that are not, in fact, likely to be dangerous.”
Recognizing our tendency toward overgeneralization, we need to critically examine whether our age-old survival instincts and long-held beliefs are truly serving us today. Are your thoughts, fears or beliefs really true? What’s the worst-case scenario, and how likely is it to happen? Are you mentally talking to yourself in a way that convinces you something bad is going to happen and feeds the fear? Recognize that negative beliefs don’t serve you, they don’t help you feel better, and they need to be counterbalanced with more positive and helpful thoughts.
“When we see tragedies in the news, it’s easy to conclude that we’ve lost our humanity — that anyone can be killed at any time,” says Dr. Schaub. “But guide your mind to look at your reality — the things that are giving you hope — right now.” For those who aren’t directly affected, little has changed. And while it’s essential to learn about what’s happening in the world and help wherever possible, we can’t lose sight of our own reality.
Balance the negative with the positive.
Just as you shouldn’t ignore fear, you should give fair play to all the positives happening around you as well. Remind yourself that these events, while tragic and worthy of our attention and support, do not mean the world is an unsafe place. They do not mean that certain types of people are terrorists or that you’re in danger if you leave your home.
It’s important to keep a broader perspective. Rather than thinking only about the horrors of traumatic events, take in the uplifting stories of heroism and courage as well, advises Dr. Schaub. Think about the offers of food, shelter and support, the honorable people who rescued strangers when their lives were at risk, those who had the good fortune to be saved, and the community that comes together and rebounds. Even in the midst of tragedy, the resiliency of the human spirit shines through.
Take the opportunity to be reminded how precious life is. “Rather than contract and get scared, take quality time with the family, stay more present with friends, call the people you care about, and live life in a full, meaningful way.” People can also allow their feelings of fear and anxiety to inspire action to help others or to do something about the injustices they see.
For some, fear turns into something bigger. If fear is consuming you — you can’t sleep or focus or function normally anymore or you feel numb or hopeless — reach out for help. “Anxiety can be relieved, but you may not be able to do it on your own,” says Dr. Schaub.
Certain medications can be useful in calming the mind so you can benefit fully from other treatments. There are also many types of therapy that have proven effective for anxiety, including cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. It’s also important to get support from friends and family. They can help keep threats in perspective and be a sounding board for fears and worries.