In his first inaugural address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously warned, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
He made a good point. Fear is frequently used as a tool of manipulation, and it begets more of itself. Politicians urge us to vote for them or suffer the fearsome consequences that they plant in our minds like seeds. Terrorists aim to destroy just enough people or property to create a panic. Marketers use fear as an inducement: “Buy this to avoid that.”
Yet if we walk with fear as a regular companion, it creates its own set of problems. We may make ourselves ill with our own thinking. Or we might spread panic to one another on a global scale.
In our highly connected world, fear moves from person to person, city to city, and nation to nation at speeds unprecedented in human history. Fear can act like a wildfire, spreading rapidly and destructively from one mind to another.
And all this damage occurs at the level of thought.
Fear does have a purpose: to ensure our survival. Yet we need to find ways to protect ourselves from fear’s destructiveness while retaining its usefulness. These four actions can help.
Action 1: Take a News Break.
Do you feel more vulnerable, insecure, or rattled after scrolling through your social-media feeds or watching the news? There’s a reason: The nervous system responds to alarming news just as it does to any bodily threat. It doesn’t distinguish very well between concrete and abstract dangers.
Awareness is important, but consciously choosing where to direct your attention is not the same as denial. Being discerning about what you take in through your mind is a lot like choosing what you eat: You know whether something is healthy or harmful by how you feel after consuming it.
When your anxiety is high, take a few days or a week off from following the news. The information you genuinely need will get to you, and a break will allow your nervous system to rest, recover, and develop more resilience.
Action 2: See What’s Not Wrong.
The human brain has a negativity bias. This means we have built-in radar that constantly scans the environment for what may be wrong or dangerous.
We evolved this tendency to improve our chances of survival when we were surrounded by predators that might be sizing us up as lunch. Those life-threatening dangers have mainly receded, but with forces using fear to capture and manipulate our attention being so prevalent, it’s vital that we intentionally seek out what is working.
Notice acts of kindness and share good news. Think of it like rebalancing an investment portfolio. If you’re constantly afraid, that means you are too heavily invested in risky stocks. A smart investor would sell off some of those and buy more of the safer, less-volatile investments.
Consciously choosing to focus less on what is wrong with the world and more on what is right is a way of investing in your own well-being.
Action 3: Get Grounded.
It used to be common practice to install a lightning rod on top of buildings. The idea was that it would absorb the force of a lightning bolt that could otherwise destroy the structure. A lightning rod must be grounded into the earth by a metal wire to safely disperse the electrical energy.
Likewise, you can defuse the excess energy of fear by finding ways to ground yourself. This usually involves doing something physical or otherwise engaging your senses:
- Rub something pleasant to the touch, like a pet’s fur or a pocket stone.
- Practice a breath-awareness meditation or a yoga pose.
- Take a deep whiff of a lemon or some other pleasing scent.
- Contact the earth: Lie on the ground, lean against a tree, dig in the dirt.
Action 4: See Thoughts for What They Really Are.
Thoughts are the primary generator of fear, yet you can also use them to calm yourself. To do this, it helps to engage in a mindfulness practice that allows you to recognize a thought for what it is — a transitory thing.
When you learn to observe your own thoughts, and you realize that you are the thinker and your mind is the creator of those thoughts, you can put them in their proper place. You might say to yourself: This is only a thought. It is not The Truth. It has power over me only if I let it, if I believe it to be true.
Then you can step back, give yourself a little distance from the thought, and choose not to engage with it. It will dissipate like a cloud, as all thoughts do if we just let them.
This article originally appeared as “Filter Out Fear” in the June 2022 issue of Experience Life.