A guide to coping with anxiety and fear effectively.

 

 

Reality can sometimes be scary. Do you find yourself in a frequent state of worry about the world? Or are there elements in your work or personal life that cause you substantial anxiety? Below you will find a set of questions we created to help you determine useful responses to your anxious thoughts, with the goal of helping you cope with stressful situations.

 

Image source: Atlas of Emotions 

 

Some psychologists class anxiety as a kind of fear that exists in the middle of a scale with slight trepidation at one end, and absolute terror on the other (see the visualization above). Other psychologists differentiate between the two, defining anxiety as “anticipation of a future concern” and fear as “an emotional response to immediate threat.”

 

Estimating the “expected value” of the situation you’re anxious about or scared of can help you identify whether your responses are proportional to the situation in question, and what it would be useful to do as a response. By answering the questions shown in the diagram below, you can figure out which anxiety-reducing techniques may be most effective in your specific situation. But before we get to the diagram, let’s take a moment to consider what kinds of situations trigger responses of anxiety and fear, and why.

 

Why do people get anxious and scared?
Fear and anxiety alert you to objects and situations that might pose a physical or psychological threat so that you can avoid or minimize this threat. These responses are usually triggered either by a prediction of imminent danger, or a realization or thought about the potential loss of something you value. If you live in a location where assault, severe illness, and starvation are rare, you probably don’t often experience situations that involve immediate physical danger. In such cases, you’re more likely to be made anxious by hypotheticals - worrying about social rejection, potential illness, performing badly in a high-stakes situation, not getting what you want out of life, or contemplating death. 

 

In order to try and work out when your feelings of anxiety and fear are valuable, it’s useful to know what triggers them. We’ve divided these responses into three broad categories that map what happens in your brain when you feel anxious or scared.

 

Category 1: PREDICTIONS OF DANGER CAUSE FEAR

  • People become afraid if their brain suddenly predicts something bad is about to happen based on what’s in the present environment. For instance, if you see a vicious looking dog running towards you, you might freeze, run, or prepare to fight (i.e., the so-called “fight/flight/freeze” reflex). Or, if you’re about to walk on stage to give a presentation in front of hundreds of people, your brain might predict that these people will judge you or that you’ll embarrass yourself on stage. 

  • When it’s useful: in these situations, you want fear to activate you (e.g., by increasing your heart rate and level of focused intensity) to help you avoid the outcome that you don’t want: getting badly bitten by a dog, or being embarrassed in front of a large crowd. 

  • When it’s not useful: if the physiological activation is too high (e.g., you’re trembling while trying to give the presentation), or if your reaction is based on a substantial overestimation of the danger (e.g., the dog running towards you is actually just a friendly dog hoping to get some pets) then the fear response may be counterproductive. 

 

Category 2: FEAR OF LOSS CAUSES ANXIETY

  • People usually become anxious if they learn of, or are reminded about, the potential loss of something they value. Examples might include receiving a possible cancer diagnosis or discovering evidence that your romantic partner no longer loves you. 

  • When it’s useful: in these examples, anxiety can motivate you to find ways to gain back the value you have lost, or motivate you to behave differently going forward so that you don’t experience similar losses in the future.

  • When it’s not useful: when you fixate on a potential loss of value (e.g., obsessively worrying about the loss) without the anxiety motivating you to take useful actions, then the worry may be making your life worse without corresponding benefit. What’s more, if you have misevaluated the evidence of loss and it is actually very unlikely (e.g., you become convinced by something minor that your partner no longer loves you, but they in fact love you very much), then this may also make your life worse without corresponding benefit.

 

Category 3: SIMULATION OF SCENARIOS CAUSE FEAR OR ANXIETY

  • People tend to feel anxious when unpleasant “what if” thoughts pop into their heads about hypothetical scenarios. Minds have the amazing ability to simulate the future (e.g., “what will my first day of work be like?”), but these simulations can be anxiety-provoking (e.g., “everyone is going to realize I have no idea what I’m doing!”). Sometimes these scenarios are extremely unlikely (e.g., “what if while I’m asleep one night twenty snakes crawl into my bed”!), and other times they’re more grounded in reality (e.g., “what will it be like when I die someday?”). Our brains can perform these kinds of “what-if” scenarios for just about anything, no matter how improbable. Yet these simulated realities can be very stressful, even if we know the imagined scenario will never occur. 

  • When it’s useful: these simulations can help you come up with a plan for what to do in a particular situation, and what you should try to avoid. Anxiety in response to these simulations can be a useful signal of what might be potentially dangerous or risky.

  • When it’s not useful: these thoughts are only simulations made by your mind, not reality. If these simulations are miscalibrated (e.g., you imagine things being much scarier than they really are in that situation), they can cause you to feel bad and avoid beneficial situations out of unrealistic fear. Furthermore, if you get fixated on certain simulations and repeat them over and over without learning from them (e.g., frequently imagining how you might die and becoming upset because of it), then they might make your life worse.

 

Sometimes people describe experiencing a general sense of anxiety that, at least as far as they are aware, doesn’t appear to be triggered by anything around them. It could be that they are experiencing many frequent small reminders of loss, or are engaging in repeated simulations of possible threats, which they aren’t able to remember afterward. This can happen fairly easily since we forget almost all of our moment to moment experiences (how many of the hundreds or thousands of thoughts you had earlier today can you actually remember now?). Persistent anxiety spurred on by frequent worried thoughts can sometimes be diagnosed as “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”. 

 

In contrast, some people experience feelings of fear and anxiety that are triggered by (what would seem to other people to be) normal sights and sounds. These kinds of reactions can be a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): People who have experienced something traumatic may find their brain strongly associates a particular stimulus with danger. A classic example would be a former military officer who witnessed their friends die in battle. This person may suddenly experience intense anxiety when there are loud noises because the noises are superficially similar to the sound of gunfire, which they associate with their traumatic battlefield experience.

 

Evidence suggests that both Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD can be successfully improved with therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). 

 

You may find it useful to consider what type of anxiety or fear you most often experience (a prediction of imminent danger based on the immediate environment, a concern about the loss of something of value, or a simulation of a frightening hypothetical).

 

What factors should you consider when thinking about the value of anxiety and fear?
When feelings of anxiety and fear perform their function well, they prepare you for the future, and motivate you to take useful actions. For instance, they help ensure that you focus on the object or event where something important is at stake, and responds appropriately. If you are in physical proximity to the threat, this would mean trying to escape it, and if the threat is not in physical proximity, this would mean thinking about how best to avoid it. When anxiety and fear don’t perform their functions well, they either produce false alarms (alerting you too often to nonexistent or manageable threats), are triggered at the wrong moments (when you can’t take useful actions), or cause you to avoid situations that are actually valuable. 

 

Consider the following diagram we created, which can be used to classify worried thoughts based on which useful techniques you can apply in response to them:

 

To learn more about each of the recommended technique sets, check out the links and descriptions at the bottom of this article.

 

This diagram above demonstrates three different factors that can be helpful to consider when evaluating how functional your anxiety or fear about a particular topic is. You can use these three factors to help determine whether your feelings are proportional to the situation, and what action you should take as a result:

 

1. Seriousness of Concern (which itself is made of two factors multiplied together)

  • Seriousness of Harm - how serious will the situation you’re feeling anxious or scared about be if it does occur? Would it pose a threat to your life or the things you value? Or will it only lead to mildly negative consequences?

  • Probability of Harm - how likely is it that situation you’re anxious or scared about will occur? Does it have a very low probability, a moderate probability, or a high probability?*

2. Frequency of the Specific Worry - how often do you experience worry or fear about this topic? Do you rarely think about it, or does it bother you frequently?

3. Ability to Take Useful Action - are you able to take any actions to avoid the threat? If there are no actions you can take to stop the threat or reduce its chances, are there other useful things you can do, such as taking steps to prepare yourself for the situation if the threat does occur?

 

*Humans aren’t great at responding appropriately to the probability of events that they fear. For example, many people fear flying much more than they do driving in a car. But the National Safety Council reports that the average American has 1 in 9,821 odds of dying in an “air or space transport incident”, as opposed to 1 in 114 of dying in a car crash (and on a per-mile basis, flying is safer than driving, too). It could be that the vivid awfulness of particularly scary events, like a plane crash, explain why we respond with more fear than the likelihood of the event actually warrants. If you want to get better at estimating the probability at which events occur, check out our Calibrate Your Judgment training app.

 

Here are some examples of different combinations of these three factors:

 

Example 1: Low concern (serious harm if occurs x extremely low probability), Low Frequency of Worry, Unactionable
Technique Set 1 on the diagram

  • This combination of factors might occur as a very unlikely “what if” simulation. For instance: “what if the building opposite mine falls down and crushes me inside my house?” Since the probability of the event is extremely low (the building is in great condition), and you can’t take any easy actions against it (you’d have to move to a different home), it may be best to distract yourself from this anxiety when it occasionally arises. 

 

Example 2: Serious concern (serious harm if occurs x moderately high probability), High Frequency of Worry, Actionable
Technique Set 3 on the diagram

  • This combination of factors might occur as a prediction. For instance: “I have to walk home each night through a place where I know people are frequently assaulted, and I’m worried that I will be assaulted too.” Since the probability of the event is moderately high, the negative outcome, if it does occur, is very bad, and the concern is actionable, it’s important that you do something about it. One of the best ways to take action in this situation is to create a prevention plan. In this example, this might include things like making sure not to walk home alone, modifying your route, getting a lift home when you can, or carrying an alarm or whistle. 

 

Example 3: Minor concern (minor harm if occurs x medium probability), High Frequency of Worry, Unactionable
Technique Set 2 on the diagram

  • This combination of factors might occur as a prediction about something in your environment, or a discovery about loss of value. For instance, suppose you find yourself frequently worrying about the bugs that live in your home: “I can’t get rid of every dust mite, louse, and ant that lives in my apartment!” Since this is a frequent worry, despite the fact that having a small number of insects in your home won’t cause you any harm (it’s inevitable), it will probably benefit you to reduce the amount of time you ruminate on this fear. One way to do this is using the vertical arrow technique to identify what exactly is at the root of this particular anxiety: why will it be bad if you can’t get rid of every single bug in your home? See the end of this article for a more detailed description of this technique. 

 

Example 4: Serious concern (serious harm if occurs x high probability), High Frequency of Worry, Unactionable
Technique Set 4 on the diagram

  • This combination of factors might occur as a reminder about the loss of something you value. For instance: “I’m going to die one day”. Since you can’t do anything about having a finite longevity, worrying about it frequently is only going to reduce your quality of life. A useful technique in situations like this is to reframe the anxiety. Instead of considering the end of your life, you could think about how best to enjoy your life right now, celebrating the wonderful moments that you do have, or use this anxiety to motivate yourself to engage in healthy behaviors that extend your life as long as possible.

 

In summary, it can be useful to consider the expected value of a situation that makes you anxious or scared (i.e., the severity of the feared event times the probability of it occurring), along with whether there are actions you can take to improve the situation, and how often you worry about this thing. Once you know what combination of factors you’re dealing with, you’ll have a better chance of identifying the actions that are useful in response. 

 

If you found this article helpful, you might also be interested in Mind Ease, a free app developed by Spark Wave to help you gain control of your anxiety symptoms. 

 

Here’s a list of the techniques mentioned in the diagram and links to further explanations:

 

Technique Set 1 (for low concern, infrequent, anxieties or fears)

  • Distract yourself from the anxiety by engaging in activities you enjoy, e.g., doing some physical exercise, or talking to a friend.

  • Accept the outcome that you’re scared or anxious about - that is, try to fully come to terms with the way the world would be if it does happen, understanding that you can handle and come to peace with that outcome.

 

Technique Set 2 (for low concern, frequent anxieties or fears)

  • The vertical arrow technique (or downward arrow technique) is a form of questioning used in CBT to uncover core beliefs and fears. You start by asking “Why are you so afraid of this thing?”, and continue to ask questions like “What if that were to happen?”, or “What if that were to be true?”, until you reach the deeper source of the anxious thought. 

  • Exposure Therapy

  • Consider the evidence for the actual likelihood and severity of the event you’re anxious or scared about. We often fail to consider all the possible explanations for a scenario. Sometimes, when we stop and think carefully, we realize that the thing we are worried about is probably not likely or wouldn’t be that bad even if it occurred.

  • Swap the anxious thought for a helpful one. For example, try to think, “I should make sure to ask my date questions about themselves.”, instead of worrying, “I’m going to say something stupid or awkward, and they won’t want to see me again.” 

  • Accept the outcome that you’re scared or anxious about - that is, try to fully come to terms with the way the world would be if it does happen, understanding that you can handle and come to peace with that outcome.

 

Technique Set 3 (for actionable, serious concern anxieties or fears)

  • Creating a prevention plan can help you determine which steps you can take to help prevent the feared situation from happening.

  • Adopting a behavior change can help you to prevent the situation you’re worried about. For more information on how to create positive behavior change, check out Spark Wave’s Ten Conditions for Change framework.

  • The EARR framework is a framework developed by Clearer Thinking to help you figure out what responses you can take in a harmful situation. You can check out the framework here.

  • Conducting a cost-benefit analysis is a systematic approach to finding the best course of action by weighing different costs and benefits against each other. You can practice this technique using our Decision Advisor tool.

  • Motivation interventions are interventions that try to increase a person’s motivation to make a change. They can be based on self-efficacy (helping the person believe change is possible) or desire (helping them believe the change is worth making).

 

Technique Set 4 (for unactionable, serious concern anxieties or fears)

  • Reframing the anxious thought can help you come up with a more positive way of approaching the situation you are worried about. We gave an example earlier which targeted death: instead of considering the end of your life, you could think about how best to enjoy your life right now and celebrate the wonderful moments that you do have.

  • Making a coping plan to determine how you will respond to the feared situation while it is happening can make anxious thoughts a lot easier to deal with (e.g., by using calming techniques, such as those taught in Mind Ease).

  • Making a recovery plan can help you figure out what you will do after a bad situation (e.g., self-care) to help yourself get back on your feet. 

 

Written by Holly Muir & Spencer Greenberg
 

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