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4 proven habits you can cultivate to deal with fear and anxiety

Read on for four science-backed building blocks to proactively increase your mental fortitude and build a resistance to the potential negative effects of uncertainty.

4 proven habits you can cultivate to deal with fear and anxiety
[Source illustration: nadia_bormotova/iStock]
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Sales, bonuses, negotiations. Promotions, collaborations, performance indicators, and reviews. Uncertainty runs rampant in the workplace, and that’s never been more true than in the wake of a global pandemic that’s affected virtually every business in every industry. Will your new boss like your idea? Why does the temp always seem to be staring at you? Will the WiFi gods smile on your Zoom connection today?

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Uncertainty is as much a natural element of life as anything you’ll find on the periodic table. Unfortunately, it has a somewhat less innocent (if not totally evil) twin: fear. You can think about it this way. Uncertainty is simply the reality that accompanies many situations, and it will never go away. Very little in life is certain. Fear and anxiety, on the other hand, you can manage.

Any number of actions and behaviors are capable of putting fear in its place (some healthier than others). A useful heuristic can be built around the old adage “prevention is the best medicine.” In this context, it means proactively increasing your mental fortitude and building a resistance to the potential negative effects of uncertainty. Here are four science-backed building blocks for doing exactly that.

Sleep

Sleep is known to influence many aspects of our bodily systems. Available research suggests it also seems to have a big impact on how we interpret uncertainty, in the sense that sleep is a natural anxiety relief medication. Matthew Walker, a neuroscience professor at UC Berkeley and author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. describes it like this: “Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake.”

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This is all too accurate, as most of us know intuitively. But Walker’s research has found that subjects’ anxiety levels decreased dramatically following a full night of sleep. Other evidence corroborates this. Brain scans show that the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain understood to regulate fear and anxiety, is recharged by nightly rest (and without it, shuts down).

Exercise

Two and a half hours per week—just 150 minutes—is how much exercise researchers say you need in order to maintain the protective benefits against anxiety. Outdoor or indoor, in groups or alone, the differences appear to be marginal at best. The important thing is exercising versus not exercising, as people in the latter group report much higher rates of anxiety (and depression, too).

Exercise works as a fear-reduction technique for many reasons. For one, physical activity releases feel-good hormones and neurochemicals. It also helps promote good sleep, the benefits of which are discussed above. Exercising regularly can also be a source of structure and predictability in a largely uncertain world — something which on its own can ease anxiety.

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Gratitude

Thinking about uncertainty is a surefire way to activate self-doubt and other negative thought patterns. Thinking about what you’re thankful for can do the opposite. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough are two of the leading researchers studying gratitude, and their work determined that people who specifically focused on grateful thoughts over a 10 week period reported feeling better and more optimistic about their lives.

Gratitude interventions like this one have only become more common and well-understood. Researchers have yet to prove that the relationship between being more thankful and less fearful is a causal one, but at the very least, there’s a strong correlation.

Prayer or meditation

Many of the fears that arise out of uncertainty and fuel our anxious tendencies are nothing more than irrational, hard-to-banish worries. If we mistakenly interpret them as problem-solving thoughts, said Elizabeth Hoge, professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, we give stress a chance to get out of control. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” Hoge has said, and mindfulness meditation is a widely accepted tool for noticing and changing our thought patterns.

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Prayer, for those who engage in it, works in a similar way. It’s an intentional, mindful activity that requires focus and self-awareness. What you’re praying about (or who you’re praying to, for that matter) is less important in this context than the fact that you’re doing it, and whether you prefer to pray or meditate (both of which can be very spiritually fulfilling), you get the maximum in benefits by doing it consistently.

Is it fear or anxiety?

You undoubtedly noticed that the two terms were used more or less interchangeably. Is there really a difference? Sure, in the sense that you’ll probably never get a psychiatric diagnosis of “fear,” or in the sense that most people will admit they are anxious before they’ll admit they are scared. But where does anxiety come from, if not fear?

The fear may be irrational, and it’s often subconscious as well. These two aspects can make it even more difficult to tame which is exactly why it’s useful to organize our habits and lifestyle in a way that creates resilience. As much as we wish they would, fear, uncertainty, and doubt don’t send us a calendar notice before interrupting our schedule. But with the right foundation and tools, we can be ready for them when they do show up and prevent them from taking control.

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Brendan Keegan is the CEO of Merchants Fleet.