15 scientific tricks to beat stress, anxiety, and fear
Back in the earlier days of evolution, humans were prey to giant hyenas, cave bears, and predatory kangaroos.
We've been able to outlast those guys, but evolutionary psychologists will tell you that we're still on constant lookout for the thing that wants to eat us next.
The trouble is, the audience at your next presentation is not, in fact, a bunch of razor-toothed animals. They generally want to see you do well.
Since being plagued by anxiety is a sure way to sabotage your own success, we've put together a collection of research-backed tips for overcoming your chronic fears and daily stressors.
Kim Bhasin contributed research to this article.
Breathe deeply because it lets your nervous system know that it can chill out.
You've probably heard that breathing is a good call if you're stressed out.
But what's fascinating is the reason why it works so well.
"Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful anxiety-reducing technique because it activates the body's relaxation response," explains Psych Central editor Margarita Tartakovsky.
As psychologist Marla W. Deibler told Psych Central, "It helps the body go from the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system to the relaxed response of the parasympathetic nervous system."
Slowly expose yourself to the things you're afraid of, so they're no longer unfamiliar to you.
If you're trying to get comfortable with negotiating, speaking in public, or other scary activities, psychologists often recommend exposure therapy.
Rehab Institute of Chicago neuroscientist Katherina Hauner has found that it can dramatically improve the way people relate to their fears.
"It is usually done in a series of hierarchical steps, starting with a relatively low level of engagement with the feared situation, and increasing the level with each step," she told the Huffington Post.
"For exposure therapy with a dog phobia," she says, "we might start with just looking at a very small puppy from many feet away, and eventually work our way up to petting a very large dog."
Recognize when you're succumbing to 'misplaced' anxiety, and let it go.
As Wharton research scholar Jeremy Yip has found, fear about one thing in your life has a way of spilling over into other parts of your life.
If you have car trouble on your way to work, there's a good chance that feeling of anxiety will carry over into your workday.
You might feel less confident about pitching your boss on a new project because when you ask yourself, "How do I feel about this?" your general feelings of anxiety make you more risk-averse.
To deal with that, try and recognize where the fear is coming from. If you're worried because you need to make improvements, listen to that. If you're worried because your exhaust is making funny noises, recognize that those worries don't have anything to do with the pitch.
Spend time with your friends — social support reduces anxiety.
Three decades of research suggests that people with close friends are better able to survive divorces, job losses, and other traumatic events.
"Friendfluence" author Carlin Flora says that friendship has long been an evolutionary advantage.
"When we lived in groups where survival itself was difficult, you needed someone who would be guaranteed to throw you a lifeline," she told Thought Catalog. "You can easily theorize that the notion of a best friend developed because we needed someone where we were number one on their list and they were number one on our list in those life and death situations."
Exercise to protect yourself against the effects of stress, which include anxiety and fear.
Working out can help people feel better.
The Mayo Clinic says that exercise helps release anxiety in three main ways:
• Exercise releases brain chemicals associated with easing depression, like endorphins.
• Exercise enhances your immune system, lessening the chance of depression.
• Exercise increases body temperature, which helps people calm down.
And a pro tip: If you're new to working out, psychologists say that "taking away the choice" of whether you're going exercise is the key to sticking to a workout plan.
Reframe anxiety as excitement so that you can devote more energy and resources to the situation.
Harvard Business School assistant professor Alison Wood Brooks has found that the best way to work with anxiety isn't to keep calm — but to get excited.
Emotions happen at two levels: There's the physical sensation, called arousal in the psych world, and then the way you mentally interpret it, called valence.
When you're anxious, your heart rate goes up — that's high arousal. And you read it as bad news — that's a negative valence.
The takeaway: If you're anxious, reframe it as excitement, since you can stay in that high arousal state but read it as good news instead. In experiments, that tactic makes people better public speakers and karaoke singers.
Prevent yourself from always focusing on the negatives by looking at the big picture.
Here's a simple, age-old exercise from Swiss psychiatrist Paul Dubois. Every night, grab a piece of paper and draw two columns. List the things that troubled you in one, and things that were favorable in the other. Make at least one favorable entry for each troubling one.
The realization that you have good things happening every day helps prevent you from just thinking about the negatives.
A few times every day, recognize that at this very moment you're doing OK.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson says in his Psychology Today column that our human instincts of survival make us constantly unsettled and fearful, protecting us against ever completely letting our guard down.
But it's mostly a lie, according to Hanson. Your brain is automatically telling you something bad is going to happen, which may be true in the future, but not right now. By reminding yourself that you're OK right now, you can more easily settle your fear and build well-being.
Realize that not everything is the end of the world; one way to do this is by consciously trivializing tasks.
Social psychologist Susan K. Perry suggests in her Psychology Today column that you always think of yourself as playing. If something goes wrong, you can just try again, or try it in some other way.
And when you compare something in your daily life to decisions that are truly life-and-death, it gives you better perspective as to what's really important — and that failure at something that's probably just trivial isn't something to be so fearful or anxious about.
Affirm your core values before a challenging situation, so you remember what makes you unique.
The next time you're headed into a job interview, or any other stressful situation, take a few moments to think about your core values — like family, career success, or creativity. Then pick one of those values and write about why it's important to you.
Psychologists call this exercise "self-affirmation," and research suggests it can help reduce anxiety in stressful situations. In one study, 85 undergrads were asked to give a five-minute speech while experimenters yelled at them to go faster. Before giving the speech, all participants chose their most important values from a list; then half wrote about their top-ranked value and half wrote about their lowest-ranked value.
Sure enough, participants who'd written about their top-ranked value reported less stress during the speech, and had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The exercise might seem unrelated to the task at hand, but hopefully it will help you remember what you as a unique individual have to bring to the table.
Help others to protect yourself from the negative effects of stress.
When you're super-stressed, it might seem like you hardly have the time or the energy to invest in other people. But you may want to make it a priority, since research suggests that helping others is an easy way to reduce your stress levels.
In one study, researchers tracked 77 adults over the course of a week, asking them to record any stressful events they experienced, how often they helped other people, and their psychological and emotional states. Results showed that, on days when the adults had helped others, they experienced less of the negative emotions that stressful events would usually trigger in them.
Those helping behaviors ranged from holding open a door to helping kids with schoolwork — the idea is to feel like you're making a difference to somebody else.
Drink coffee regularly because it may help you manage stress.
This trick might seem counterintuitive, given that too much caffeine at one time has the potential to make us anxious and jittery.
Yet one study, conducted on mice, suggests that coffee can actually help us deal with stressful situations. For the study, researchers gave one group of mice drinking water with caffeine and another group regular water. Then all the mice were subjected to stressors like cold baths and having their cage tilted.
As it turns out, the mice who drank regular water showed stress-induced changes in their brain and behavior — like acting helpless and performing worse on memory tests — but the mice who drank caffeinated water didn't exhibit any of these changes.
Future research is necessary to determine whether these findings apply to humans as well.
Practice mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety, depression, and pain.
A 2013 analysis of 47 studies, with a total of 3,515 participants, found that a practice called "mindfulness meditation" can help you manage anxiety, depression, and pain.
Mindfulness meditation is about training your brain to focus on the present, instead of anxieties about the future or regrets about the past. You start by observing your breath instead of trying to force yourself to calm down.
If the prospect of sitting silently with your own thoughts for a few minutes every day is too intimidating, simply creating mindful moments can help you cope with challenging situations. For example, Google's vice president of people development says she takes a six-second "mindful breath" before she enters a meeting.
Talk to yourself to perform better in stressful situations.
To get rid of some of your pre-interview or pre-presentation nerves, try talking to yourself like you'd talk to someone else in the same situation.
Specifically, use the pronoun "you" or your name instead of "I."
In one study, researchers had a group of about 100 undergrads deliver a speech about why they were qualified for their dream job. While preparing, they were instructed to write down how they were gearing themselves up. Half the students were told to write using "you" or their name; the other half was told to use "I."
Results showed that students who used "you" or their own name were more confident and less anxious about the exercise. Plus, they performed better on the speech.
If you don't have space to talk to yourself out loud before a stressful experience, try writing down your self-talk like the participants in the study did.
Embrace the potential advantages of stress and you'll be more likely to learn from the struggle.
We typically talk about stress as something to fear and avoid, but psychologists say stress can be a sign your life is meaningful. The key to not letting stress get out of hand is embracing its potential upsides.
In one study, researchers divided about 300 adult workers into two groups. Over the course of a week, one group watched a series of videos on the detrimental effects of stress, while others watched videos on the benefits of stress. Not only did participants in the second group start viewing stress more positively — they also reported improved psychological symptoms and better work performance.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal says thinking about the positive effects of stress can both improve your physiological response to a challenging situation and help you learn and grow from it.
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