Managing fear and anxiety

Richard LeBeau, PhD, UCLA psychologist, reviews the practice of finding calmness through breathing, a strategy to reduce the stress associated with anxiety-like symptoms

Sometimes people experience surges of intense anxiety. All of a sudden, they may feel physical symptoms like an increased heart rate, sweaty palms and shortness of breath. These can be very scary experiences, especially when they start without warning.

When this happens, people can feel the urge to escape whatever environment they are in or freeze in place as if they can’t move. Part of the reason these experiences are so scary is that it’s not clear why they are happening, how long the feelings will last or what will be the outcome.

Experiencing these so-called panic symptoms is a major source of distress for many people, and they tend to occur more often during times of heightened stress.

While unpleasant, the vast majority of these experiences are not an indication that something actually is wrong with us. Rather, they are the result of our body’s defense system becoming activated. In this section of the Care Package, we explain why the body’s defense system causes these symptoms. Then we review two skills that can help manage these surges in anxiety when they arise.

Understanding the body’s response to fear and anxiety

Anxiety and fear are natural reactions that help us stay safe. If we didn’t have anxiety and fear, we wouldn’t survive, as these feelings alert us and help us react to dangerous situations like reacting when cars are coming towards us while walking in the street.

We feel fear when we are in a present situation that we perceive as dangerous. We get anxious when we think about or imagine something threatening that might happen in the future. Anxiety and fear are made up of thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors. Our bodies respond to fear almost instantaneously. We can feel scared and tense without knowing the cause. We also can instinctively avoid situations that seem dangerous without even realizing it.

When we are in a situation that we perceive as threatening, our bodies react by motivating us to react in one of three ways – run away as fast as possible (flight), fend off an attack (fight) or stay motionless to avoid detection (freeze). The symptoms we label anxiety are actually physiological changes that help our body survive.

It’s helpful to recognize some of the common symptoms of fear and anxiety and see how they help us to survive when we are faced with a threat. Please refer to the information sheet to learn more about what’s happening in our bodies when we experience the following symptoms:

  • Jittery/shaking feeling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing/pounding heart
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle tension (pain)
  • Nausea or “butterflies”
  • Sweaty or “clammy”
  • Mind going blank or thoughts of death

When we are in a state of fear and panic, less blood goes to the brain. As a result, our thoughts are less rationale and are distorted by fear. Because a substantial amount of energy is used when we flee or fight, our bodies cannot maintain this state for very long. Once the threat is over, the fear and physical symptoms quickly decrease.

In other words, you don’t have to do anything to make the symptoms go away. The symptoms may be very unpleasant, but they are harmless and they will go away on their own. Nevertheless, below we share two skills that can help you reduce your distress when you are having these symptoms.

Skill 1: Find calmness through breathing

When our bodies’ defense systems get activated and the signals of anxiety arise, understandably we are eager to make these symptoms go away.

Although there is no magic pill or skill that can prevent us from feeling fear and panic, there are skills that can help slow down this process and help us return to calmness more quickly.

One of these skills is to slow our breathing. Slowing down our breathing won’t make the feelings disappear, but it will reduce them so we feel calmer, more centered, and able to focus and make reasoned decisions. We reviewed this technique in the Care Package section, “Handling the Stress of Returning to Work.”

With practice, you will be able to use this breathing skill more effortlessly and effectively in a high-stress situation.

On your own: Practice slow breathing when you are in a state of calm (e.g., not scared or anxious) so that you can be more comfortable with it when you need to use it in a high stress situation.

Skill 2: Balance your thinking

When we are experiencing the symptoms that arise out of fear and anxiety, we tend to have very “black-and-white” thinking. We pay extra attention to danger in the environment, and we overestimate the likelihood that something bad is going to happen.

Although it’s normal to have these thoughts, they can worsen the situation. For example, if someone already is dealing with the unpleasant feeling of a racing heart rate, imagine how much worse they will feel if they think they are having a heart attack.

It’s important to remember that our thoughts are biased when we are feeling fear and panic, but there are steps we can take to restore more balanced thinking. Such thinking isn’t necessarily positive thinking, but rather thinking that is based on actual evidence as opposed to the fear that we are experiencing.

It can be hard to do this when you are in the middle of an episode of fear or panic. Remember that we have little, if any, control over what thoughts come into our mind. But we do have control over how we respond to them.

On your own: Practice balanced thinking when you are feeling calm so that it is easier to use this skill at the moment you experience the earliest signs of symptoms.

Practice these skills to return to calmness

It’s not uncommon for anxiety to be manifested through intense physical sensations that appear out of the blue. Although these symptoms feel unpleasant, they actually are completely normal and not dangerous. Using the skills described in this section may help you gain a better understanding of what’s going on in your body and brain, and also help you return to a sense of calmness more quickly.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheets:

How-to Guides: