7 Powerful Essays That’ll Help Put Your Anxiety in Perspective

An exploration of fear, the most faithful human companion.

I’m a natural worrier. While I enjoy the little spontaneities of everyday life, on bad days, fear gets the best of me. To not know which calamities await me further down the road and what I can do to prevent them can drive me into a hell ride of worry and anxiety.

I’ve been dealing with worry and fear since my teenage years.

Thanks to a disrupted sense of object permanence during my childhood I‘m swallowed by an almost unbearable fear of abandonment when something triggers me.

Before I tackled my fears (with the help of therapy, books, and even psychedelic plant medicine), I was prone to catastrophic thinking. When something didn’t go according to plan or got out of my hands, I was quick to assume the worst-case scenario. This often resulted in hopelessness.

I learned that, when left unquestioned, fear can be damaging beyond repair. Once it takes over, your life goes into the trunk. Fear keeps you from enjoying everyday things and leaves you with a laden mush of bleakness and paralysis instead.

Needless to say, the pandemic amplified fears — and, obviously, not just mine:

According to this national survey measuring symptoms of psychological distress and loneliness among US adults in April 2020 compared to the results data from 2018, in April 2020, 13.6% of US adults reported symptoms of serious psychological distress, relative to 3.9% in 2018. That’s a whopping 250% increase.

Not all is lost though. When examined, questioned, and ignored if necessary, fear can be a good teacher. It helps us outline our comfort zone. It shows us our perceived limits and allows us to push beyond them.

When you learn to live with fear, it gives you a sense of achievement. Fear might always be there, but you can still have a wonderful, curious, and courageous life.

The following essays examine fear from a different perspective each. They can help you learn more about what fear is, why we experience it, and how we can live with it.

1. How Your Brain Learns to Fear

by Mark Humphries on Medium: Neuroscience, June 1, 2017

This essay by systems neuroscientist Mark Humphries is a thorough look at fear from a neurological perspective. Through experiments on rats, Humphries explains how fear manifests in the amygdala’s neurons and the unpredictable way fear stays with us long after the source of danger has passed.

To learn to fear is a linear process. To overcome it, however, is everything but a straight line:

The extinguishing of fear is not unlearning. The brain has not returned to the way it was. (…) Information is retained about both the fear and the loss of fear. After all, that fear may be useful in future. Events that once predicted imminent danger may do so again, so it makes sense that rat brains and our brains should not completely forget fear. They just put it on ice.

What we can learn from this:

Fear protects us and keeps us alert. In doing its job, however, it’s often overprotective and prejudiced by past experiences. It’s our responsibility to evaluate whether our fear is legit and whether it deserves our attention.

It often makes sense to look for past patterns and experiences when we deal with fear and ask ourselves whether these experiences are still relevant in the current situation (hint: most often, they’re not).

2. Outsmarting Our Primitive Responses to Fear

by Kate Murphy in The New York Times, October 26, 2017

In her essay, Kate Murphey reminds us we’re essentially caught in the wrong environment. In our hunter-gatherer time, when danger lurked behind every corner, fear was a life-saver.

Today, most of our fears lost their jobs and therefore look for toxic ways to stay in the loop:

According to Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University,

Change has occurred so rapidly for our species that now we are equipped with brains that are super sensitive to threat but also super capable of planning, thinking, forecasting and looking ahead. So we essentially drive ourselves nuts worrying about things because we have too much time and don’t have many real threats on our survival, so fear gets expressed in these really strange, maladaptive ways.

As Humphrey further points out, fear is quicker than thought, and our reaction to fear (quick pulse, tense muscles, and dilated pupils) happens long before other parts of our brain can elaborate whether fear is necessary or not.

What we can learn from this:

Fear, as we experience it today, is mostly dysfunctional. It’s a leftover reflex from a different time and environment. Sometimes, the reflex can save your life (like before a car would run over you) but more often than not, you need to question fear. Essentially, fear is a mismatched reaction of your amygdala so don’t give it more attention than it deserves.

3. The Evolution of Anxiety: Why We Worry and What to Do About It

by James Clear, on his blog, March 22, 2016

James Clear’s funny and insightful look behind the scenes of anxiety elaborates further on how today’s humans live in a world that wasn’t designed for them.

We call this evolutionary mismatch.

Clear explains how we live in a delayed return environment while our brains were originally wired for immediate returns. This makes sense if you, again, compare our hunter-gatherer ancestors to contemporary humans. The former lived from day to day and didn’t own more than they could carry, while the latter (i.e. you and I) are told to provide for the distant future and prepare for the right career decades before these things play out.

What we can learn from this:

While this sounds like a sad fact, the more I dived into the topic of fear, the more relief I found in these explanations: Fear isn’t our fault and there’s nothing wrong with us for having the fears we have.

4. How to Live When Your Mind is Governed by Fear

by Jud Brewer MD Ph.D. in Elemental, August 11, 2020

While, as we learned before, fear is an innate survival mechanism that can be helpful, anxiety is the opposite. According to Brewer, it’s is an anti-survival mechanism which contributes to chronic health problems and thwarts learning:

Remember the last time you had to memorize some facts for a presentation yet were too anxious so it was harder to get them to stick in your head? As American author Arthur Somers Roche put it, “Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” When it comes to surviving a meeting, planning a family vacation, or saving for retirement, anxiety masquerades as a promise to help — but in actuality, it turns your thinking brain to mush.

As a psychiatrist, Brewer encourages his patients to work with their minds and recognize the voices of anxiety before they can take over:

Basically, my job is to help patients understand that they have a government in their heads. They give these noisy voices power by listening to them and acting out their commands, or they can use their energy to stop doing this. I often teach patients to name these voices so they can more easily recognize them when they speak up, make demands, or cause alarm. It may sound wild, but it works.

To step back and give your fear a name can indeed change how the fear will eventually play out and whether or not it can seize control over you:

Naming the anxiety voice allows them to step back and notice the voice for what it is: a voice (“Oh, that’s Anxious Anne going on again about my upcoming deadline”). This evokes a principle from quantum physics called the observer effect in which the act of observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. By observing a voice or a thought in your head, by definition, you are less identified with it. Author Dan Millman put this nicely: “You don’t have to control your thoughts; you just have to stop letting them control you.”

What we can learn from this:

Taking a step back when anxiety gushes over you is counterintuitive, to say the least. It’s nevertheless your best shot at gaining back control. Try to name your fears for what they are — do you feel worried, anxious, or panicky? Can you allow your more sensible, rational parts to speak to them?

5. The Difference Between Worry, Stress, and Anxiety

by Emma Pattee in The New York Times, February 26, 2020

Speaking of the distinction between the different forms of fear, Emma Pattee’s article depicts three of them: Worry, stress, and anxiety.

She defines them, explains their mechanisms, and provides three tips for each so you can deal with them better.

In short, worry is about obsessive, repetitive thoughts but can be helpful if it induces positive change. It happens only in the mind, not the body.

Stress, on the other hand, is a biological response to a threat. Acute stress can be helpful when it prompts us to become active and get things done. Its other form — chronic stress — is the bad boy linked to several health issues.

Finally, anxiety is a culmination of stress and worry and happens in both our mind and body. You cannot think your way out of it. According to Pattee, it’s what happens when we deal with a lot of worries and a lot of stress at once.

What we can learn from this:

It helped me tremendously to learn to distinguish between all the different manifestations of fear. Apart from naming the fears we deal with, as Jud Brewer MD Ph.D. suggests, we can also treat and ease them separately, in a targeted way — for example, with Pattee’s methods.

I include this practice in my daily meditation: Whenever fear in some form arises, I examine it, name it, and observe where and how it manifests — do any bodily sensations arise with it?

The more intimate you become with your fears, the more you’ll be able to thrive despite them.

6. Love is Medicine for Fear

Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic, July 16, 2020

When it comes to fear, we learned we can either eliminate the source of the fear (especially when it’s an immediate threat) or observe the fear and decide not to listen to it.

Turns out, there’s one more option:

The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao Te Ching, “Through Love, one has no fear.” More than 500 years later, Saint John the Apostle said the same thing: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

This is a very strong argument: Love neutralizes fear. It took about 2,000 years, but contemporary neurobiological evidence has revealed that Lao Tzu and Saint John were absolutely on the money.

Since this sounds good but a little wishy-washy so far, Brooks continues with concrete, actionable steps to conquer fear with love:

  1. Confess your fear to someone you trust. — Don’t carry your fears around silently!

2. Make your love overt. — Tell someone you love them. This someone should be a person you don’t normally say this to which makes it an act of courage.

3. Take a risk. — Confront your fear with love by confessing your love to someone who doesn’t expect it.

4. Love your enemies. — Try to not attack others for their opinions for a set time (e.g. a week). Bring kindness to your discussions.

What we can learn from this:

As Brooks points out, to show love in the face of fear isn’t a natural reaction. However, our natural reactions (aka instincts) weren’t designed for happiness. While fear provokes the fight or flight response, love is the exact opposite and, therefore, a powerful way to stand up tall against fear.

7. Houses of Horror

by Francis McAndrew, in Aeon, October 21, 2019

Finally, a reminder: Fear isn’t all bad. Often enough, we even seek it out just for fun. We do it when we ride a rollercoaster, watch a horror movie, or visit a mystery house.

Francis McAndrew explores the appeal of fear and what humans love about creepiness.

It’s an insightful piece that explains our favorite environment (it’s a womb with a view) and how we subconsciously use controlled fearful settings and other people’s scary experiences as a rehearsal.

What we can learn from this:

I once read the tip to watch a horror movie to ease my anxiety. While this sounds insane, it helps. In artificially fearful settings, it’s you who controls fear and not the other way round. Therefore, a deliberately scary experience is another unusual way to tame your fears.

Know your enemy is a popular expression. While, as we now learned, fear isn’t an enemy, its annoyance will lose power the more you know where it comes from.

The articles I listed above are just a few out of many I found particularly helpful. While each has its key points, my biggest takeaway is this:

The more you learn about fear, the more familiar you become with it, and the more techniques you try to live with it, the less it will have power over you.

Fear is not a monster. It’s a wild animal you can tame to become your friend. It will only haunt you if you decide to run away from it.