A psychologist shares tips for managing fear and worry in uncertain times

Colorado Jill

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When I first moved to Colorado, I was terrified of mountain lions.

At the time, my kids were young, and I worried they would be attacked by a predator in our backyard. I watched too many nature shows because I could imagine some pretty horrible scenes in my mind.

To combat this fear, I read everything I could about mountain lion encounters. I knew to make myself big, grab a rock or stick, and back away slowly.

Most importantly, do not turn and run!

I drilled this information into my kid’s heads. I showed them how to open their jackets and shirts to make themselves look bigger. We avoided being outside at dawn or dusk, and I told them to always stay together when they were out.

I made sure everyone was as prepared as possible.

Fear Found Me

One morning, about six years after moving to Colorado, I had the much-anticipated mountain lion encounter. He was eating a deer in my front yard.

I saw him when I opened the front door to take the dog out. Our eyes met, and the mountain lion immediately took off, leaving his unfinished breakfast, and I quickly stepped back inside slamming and locking the door.

One of my biggest fears had been realized.

I was scared, but nothing dire happened. The mountain lion did not leap 10 feet up in the air and land on my shoulders, engulfing my head as I had always pictured. It turns out the lion was scared of me too.

Am I still scared about running into a cougar? Yes! But armed with knowledge and probabilities (mountain lion attacks are rare), I live my life despite this fear. I won't let it steal my joy of the great outdoors.

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How Powerful Is Your Fear?

My personal mantra is: “I refuse to live in fear."

I first started saying this when my husband deployed to Iraq in 2005. I had many reasons to be afraid during this time, but I had an obligation to my children, husband, and myself to function despite the fear.

The mantra did not erase my unease at the time, but it reminded me that my life was bigger than my fear.

This saying has served me well over the years. I use it because I need it. I tend to jump to the worst possible scenario in situations, and I’m often reminding myself to slow down, breathe, and pay attention to my thoughts.

Fear is an emotion we all experience, and it is protective at times. It keeps us from walking down dark, dangerous alleys and bungee jumping off sharp cliffs.

There are situations, though, where fear presents unnecessary challenges, especially for those of us who are a tad high-strung.

In these cases, it is helpful to have a strategy for moving beyond fear. I know that just because I will not allow myself to live in fear does not mean I can't experience it.

Acknowledge and Share

Instead of avoiding fear and anxiety, it is necessary to acknowledge them. That is step one.

Next, we take steps to manage and move past the fear. Expressing anxiety to a family member, trusted friend, or therapist frees up mind space to focus on more important tasks.

Sharing the worry reduces its power.

How many times have you said something out loud and then realized how strange or ridiculous it sounded?

Or, perhaps it does not sound any different spoken out loud, but just the act of verbally acknowledging the fear changes the energy.

The Guatemalan tradition of “worry dolls” is a great example of emotional release through sharing. These dolls are given to children who are struggling with fear. The child is encouraged to tell their concerns to the dolls, put them under their pillow, and they will wake in the morning feeling better.

You can also write down your fears.

A University of Chicago study found that students prone to test anxiety improved their test scores by writing about their fears/anxiety for 10 minutes before taking a high-stakes exam.

After you write it down, explore and challenge your worries by asking yourself:

  • How likely is it that this will happen?
  • How do I know?
  • Is there a way I can think differently about this worry or fear?
  • How will worrying about this help me?
  • How will it hurt me?

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Take Action Where You Can

Once you have acknowledged your worries and organized your thoughts, are you hearing a call to action? We feel more in control and less anxious when we take action.

Have you identified a problem that needs to be solved?

My fear of mountain lions prompted me to research ways to survive an encounter, and then I rehearsed it in my head and with my children. The act of preparing was empowering and reduced my fear.

Unfortunately, we can’t take direct action on every worry. There are things that we can not control. Worrying about the path of a hurricane will not change its course, and this uncertainty can be difficult.

If you have identified a worry that you can not take direct action on, then consider shifting your focus.

We have a choice about where we invest our energy. Consider moving the “worry energy” around through exercise, mindfulness, or journaling.

When you feel burdened by something outside your control, shifting your attention to something within your control is helpful.

Final Thoughts

We live in an unpredictable world that feels scary and hard at times. Acknowledge your fear and take action where you can.

For those situations that you can not control, consider using an empowering mantra to help push you through anxiety.

This is your one life to live, and you can refuse to live in fear!

This article is for educational purposes only, not as a substitute for therapy or other medical treatment. I am a psychologist, but I am not your psychologist. There are medical professionals in your local area to help you with your specific situation when needed.

Please follow me for more articles on healthy living, self-care, and personal growth. This article was originally published on Medium.

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Outdoor Explorer | Animal lover | Fun Seeker | Community-minded Writer in Colorado

Colorado Springs, CO
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