Fear and anxiety are powerful emotions. They can take over both your mind and body, making you like you can’t control your feelings which can be overwhelming. For some people, this occurs regularly. Around 19% of adults in the US have an anxiety disorder¹. Dealing with anxiety and fear can be difficult, and you may feel like it stops you from getting the most out of your life.
In this article, you will find 15 strategies to help you overcome fear and anxiety.
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Fear is a natural response to a perceived threat to our safety or the safety of others. We all experience fear as a normal result of something our bodies are naturally wired to escape from, like a lion running at you, or learned through negative past experiences.
In the face of danger, your nervous system switches on your fight-or-flight response. However, you can experience fear when something that is not a “real” threat activates your fight-or-flight response, leading to mental health issues like anxiety disorders.
Let's say you’re walking home from a friend's place at night. You notice someone following you. Your heart starts to race, and you might begin to sweat or feel dizzy. You are experiencing fear because this person could be a threat to your safety.
Anxiety is an emotional response to a potential threat, whether it exists now or could happen in the future. Anxiety is caused by your body's fear mechanisms being activated by emotions or thoughts rather than a “real” threat in your surroundings.
Let’s take the same example from before, but no one is following you this time, and there’s no sign of danger. You start to worry that someone might start following you or what might happen if someone jumps out at you. Your heart starts racing — you’re sweating and dizzy even though there’s no immediate danger. You are experiencing anxiety.
Fear and anxiety are triggered by similar mechanisms in the body, resulting in similar symptoms. It is important to remember that everyone experiences fear or anxiety differently, so your symptoms can be different to someone else’s.
Common symptoms of fear and anxiety include:
It’s totally normal to feel afraid or anxious at times. Sit with these emotions and let yourself feel them for a few minutes. Remind yourself that emotions and fears will come and go, which is okay. It’s important to remind yourself of this — there is no shame in feeling anxious.
After a few minutes, do something you enjoy. Maybe call a friend, do some baking, or go for a walk. This will help to calm the emotions you are feeling.
If you find that a particular task is making you feel anxious, try stopping it for a few minutes to let your mind relax. Maybe you’re studying for an exam, and thinking about sitting for the exam makes you anxious. You probably aren’t doing your best studying while you feel this way, and it won’t be doing your mind or body any good, so take a break. Do something else for five minutes, and you’ll probably feel less worked up.
If you aren’t sure what is causing these emotions, try writing down everything on your mind. Once it’s all out on paper, take a look through and see if any of it might be what is causing your anxiety. If you notice a trigger, plan things you can do to resolve it. If you are anxious because you have a big deadline coming up, schedule everything you need to do leading up to this deadline. This way, you can visualize a solution to the problem, and it may seem less daunting. This kind of problem-solving² has been shown to be an effective method of anxiety relief.
Research³ shows that facing your fears is an important step when your fear is a result of a negative experience or a bad situation that you have imagined. When you face your fear, chances are nothing bad will actually happen. You can replace the negative image in your mind with a safe memory, or at least ease your mind, so it isn’t as hard next time.
Facing your fear isn’t easy. It takes courage, but you don’t have to do it alone. Try taking a friend or family member with you for support.
If your anxiety is severe, take small steps to tackle your fear. If you experience anxiety at the thought of taking public transport, first try waiting at the bus stop without actually getting on a bus. Next time, take the bus with a friend but get off just down the road, so you’re only exposing yourself to this fear for a short time. In the future, you can try taking the bus further, and it will eventually get easier.
Research⁴has shown that people with anxiety tend to struggle to accept positive experiences and dismiss the possibility of the event being positive in the future. To combat this, it may be helpful to write in a notebook or take a photo whenever you have faced your fear to remind yourself that you did it.
It is important to recognize that overcoming your fears is a big deal. Be proud of yourself when you do it and give yourself a reward as motivation to do it again.
Using the bus example again, you could plan to meet some friends for an outing at the bus stop you will be getting off at, or go to the ice cream shop for a treat after taking the bus. This will help reinforce positive memories of taking the bus, and it will seem less scary in the future.
It is important not to get down on yourself when you feel anxious. Research⁴ has shown that people who experience anxiety tend to remember negative experiences over positive ones. Getting down on yourself will only reinforce this. Try telling yourself that it’s okay that you felt too anxious today, and next time you will try again.
Quick, shallow breaths are a common symptom of fear and anxiety. Taking deep, slow breaths is important to regulate your body and calm yourself down.
When you experience fear or anxiety, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) activates the fight-or-flight response and mediates the symptoms you experience. There are two branches of the ANS — the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The PNS lessens arousal, meaning your body is not preparing for danger. But when you feel overly stressed, fearful, or anxious, the SNS steps in to activate your fight-or-flight response, causing you to feel anxiety symptoms. Focusing on taking deep, slow diaphragmatic breaths helps your body reactivate PNS and lessens anxiety symptoms.
Try sitting down wherever you are and close your eyes. When you breathe in, count to five and imagine the air filling your stomach and chest. Breathe out slowly, counting to five. Repeat for a few minutes until you feel more relaxed.
You can also use the 4-7-8⁵breathing technique:
Sit or stand comfortably
Breathe in for four counts
Hold your breath for seven counts
Breathe out for eight counts
Make sure when you breathe in, you feel the air filling your diaphragm, not just your chest. Repeat for a few minutes.
Aerobic exercises⁶ like running, cycling, and swimming are great for reducing anxiety. When you exercise, your body releases feel-good hormones called endorphins, which help relieve anxiety symptoms.
Some essential oils⁷ contain calming anti-anxiety properties, including:
Placing essential oils in a diffuser can help relieve anxiety symptoms and promote relaxation when you are stressed. If you do not have a diffuser, you could use a hand cream or body lotion containing essential oils for a similar effect.
Getting outside has been shown to reduce anxiety. Research⁸ has shown that spending time in nature helps lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, which is important in managing anxiety symptoms.
If you can’t get outdoors, try closing your eyes and visualizing yourself out in nature, and you may start to feel more relaxed.
Anxiety and fear can be overwhelming, and it can be easy to let your regular routines, like your eating and sleep schedule, slip, but it is important to take care of these basic needs. Your body needs food and sleep to survive, and even just by keeping up this basic routine, you will be working towards overcoming these emotions.
Several ways to relax have been shown to help overcome anxiety and fear symptoms:
Muscle relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation⁹
Warm baths or showers to relax your muscles
Relaxing your body will help to stop the fight-or-flight response and ease your anxiety symptoms.
Although facing your fears is an important part of overcoming them, it is okay to say no if you don’t feel ready just yet. If you are overwhelmed at the thought of doing something, saying no will help to relieve that anxiety.
Journaling is a powerful tool to reduce anxiety and fear. Writing everything down on paper can feel like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders and your thoughts are clearer. This makes it easier for you to take control of your anxiety or fear to overcome it.
Asking for help when you need it can be tough. Remember that fear and anxiety are difficult emotions to deal with, and it's perfectly okay to seek help. Talk to friends and family about how you are feeling, or go straight to a doctor or counselor who is trained to help you through these issues and will be able to provide you with methods to overcome your anxiety.
Anxiety and fear are your body’s natural way of keeping you safe from a perceived threat. There are many ways you can manage and work through your emotions.
If your anxiety or fear feels too hard for you to manage, talk to a friend or family member and visit your doctor who can help.
Anxiety disorders | National Alliance on Mental Illness
4-7-8 Breathing technique | Gundersen Health System
Clinical aromatherapy (2020)