Anxiety and Fear

It’s normal to experience fear and anxiety from time to time.

But for many of us, fear and anxiety are constant companions – paralyzing us and clouding our ability to express ourselves and live a fully realized life.

The good news is that we can change our relationship with these reactions – managing, reducing, and overcoming them – and take back control of our lives.


How to Fight Anxiety and Fear

Get 7 audio conversations with experts in anxiety and fear, and a PDF teaching you the fundamentals for moving from anxiety to security, with 3 experiential practices for applying it to your life.

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Dealing with Anxiety

5 Powerful Practices for Feeling Calmer, Safer, and More Capable

Explore ideas and practical, evidence-based methods for replacing anxiety with a sense of ease and confidence. Hardwire the benefits of these practices into your nervous system so you feel less preoccupied and nervous, and stronger and more hopeful.


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Learn how to develop key inner strengths – like grit, gratitude, and compassion – to stay calm, confident, and happy no matter what life throws at you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Psychologist and Author Dr. Rick Hanson answers questions about

Anxiety and Fear

I often wake up thinking anxious thoughts that seem to come out of a dream state. It can be several minutes before I realize what is happening, and by then I’m already in an anxious mood. What can I do to help this?

You are pointing to a pretty widespread experience that I suspect is due to a combination of low physiological state (prompting anxiety) and dysregulated rhythms of cortisol (rising sooner than it should in the morning). I’ve certainly experienced versions of this myself, typically after an anxiety saturated dream.

As a practice, my suggestion would be to start with awareness of the anxiety as soon as it can be established, and then increasingly bring attention to the embodied sense of the facts of alrightness: breathing ongoing, heart beating, body basically alright, no immediate threat in the bedroom, others nearby (if true), walls still standing, home basically alright, mind proceeding, consciousness happening alright, breathing ongoing, recognizing that the anxious thoughts have little basis in reality, and so forth.

Really open to this benign experience and help it sink in, perhaps doing the “Linking” step in the HEAL process of pairing this reassuring sense of alrightness with the anxious feelings and thoughts so that the reassurance gradually soothes, eases, and replaces the anxiety.

You’ve said that love and compassion can combat anxiety. How do they do that – and how can we access those feelings more readily, particularly when we feel threatened?

“Off-line,” when you do not feel threatened, deepen the sense of feeling connected by routinely taking in experiences of feeling cared about. Then, at times you do feel threatened or anxious, call up the body sense of feeling cared about. Stay strong with this, being a good friend to yourself, helping your mind stay focused on the sense of having allies, being part of a group, feeling included, liked, and loved.

What thoughts or suggestions do you have for helping me calm my brain rather than go into fearful mind states when there are sudden unfamiliar sounds?

What works for me is rationally observing that I am in a safe place while emotionally tuning into my body, telling myself again and again that it is alright right now, and intuitively sensing my place in the natural world, my safe belonging in it, and its support for me.

Is the experience of peace and happiness synonymous with activating the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system? If so, what are the three most successful techniques for activating the PNS?

It’s a great question, since there is sometimes a misunderstanding of the nervous system that equates parasympathetic activation with positive states of being and sympathetic activation with negative states.

Yes, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) can foster the calming and easing that underlie many positive states of being. On the other hand, excessive PNS activation leads to the “freeze response” – in humans this is the equivalent of animals playing dead – which can feel like sleepiness, dissociation, inertness, numbing, tuning out, or shutting down, often accompanied by negative emotions such as dread or shame.

And yes, activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) can foster fight or flight states of being, often with associated negative emotions such as anger or fear. On the other hand, SNS activation combined with positive emotions such as eagerness, confidence, success, pleasure, affection, and gratification can foster wholesome actions such as cheering on your child in a race, making love, asserting yourself, dancing with your whole heart, or pursuing an ambition.

Overall, a balance of PNS and SNS activation is best. In a culture that prizes SNS activation (and which often stimulates negative emotions such as drivenness or envy), it is particularly important to be strong and skillful in PNS activation. And throughout, keep planting and nourishing seeds of positive emotions, thoughts, somatic states, and desires.

In terms of what activates the PNS, anything that helps you relax will do this. If you want three “go-tos” that I like myself, here they are:

  • Exhaling
  • Touching your lips
  • Hugging someone you care about
My own personal experience tells me that when I’m upset my speaking voice changes in resonance and timbre. Is there a connection between our emotional state and the physiology of our voices?

I don’t know of any specific research about emotional states affecting vocalization, or vice versa, but I assume there must be multiple studies about these subjects. Stephen Porges has some powerful ideas about the vagus nerve, soothing, and the innervations of this nerve complex into the middle ear so that certain sounds have a particularly calming and reassuring effect; he has one of the interviews in the free Hardwiring Happiness video series I did, that you might like. Also, material on experience-dependent neuroplasticity suggests that positive experiences will over time alter neural structure and function for the better.

I’m dealing with generalized anxiety around air travel, mostly during the times of getting on the plane and when the cabin door closes. I feel anxious and panicky, which triggers the ‘avoiding harm’ system. How can I most effectively use your HEAL technique to deal with this?

Fears of air travel are really common as you probably know. Very normal. Besides concerns about crashing, there is the loss of control or the feeling of being trapped when the door closes. It’s helpful to be mindful of the specific triggers of the anxiety.

In terms of what you could do, you could use HEAL to:

  • Internalize general resources for anxiety, such as relaxation, feeling loved, and sense of perspective (e.g., the odds of a bad event on your flight are vanishingly tiny);
  • Internalize specific resources for air travel, such as compassion for the other travelers and, ultimately, acceptance of whatever happens;
  • Do the Link step in which you focus on experiences of the resources above while also experiencing, off to the side of awareness, thoughts and feelings related to air travel.

Additionally, you could do a few sessions with a therapist, perhaps hypnotist, to do experiential practices, including the sort listed above, related to travel. I also know people who speak to a physician and take a little medicine before a flight, such as a “beta-blocker.” 

Personally, I have a little ritual in which I bless the plane, imagine it surrounded by light, focus on compassion for the other passengers (I want them to be fine, too), and then accept and be at peace with whatever may happen. Works for me!

In your books Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, you mention a variety of methods for reducing stress. Which three methods do you consider generally to be the most effective?

In principle, there are three places we can intervene to make things better: out in the world, in the body, and in the mind. All are important. For example, a person could reduce stress by shifting out a living situation (intervening out in the world) that has stressful roommates in it. In this context, I’ll focus on three methods inside the mind.

Obviously, what is most effective in the mind will depend on the person and his or her situation. And we need to recognize that challenges need not be experienced as stressors. For one person, a promotion with new responsibilities (challenge) could feel demanding, intense, and like a lot of work, but not feel significantly stressful; for a different person, the same challenge could feel really stressful (e.g., body revved up, unpleasant sense of pressure, negative emotions like anxiety or irritability).

In this light, and in general, here are my top three stress-busters:

  • Exhaling – And relaxing the body in other ways as well.
  • Turning toward some authentic positive experience – Washing your hands, eating something good, thinking of something you feel grateful for, smelling something nice, etc.
  • Giving or receiving love – Any form of caring is good here, such as feeling included, seen, appreciated, liked, or loved.

We evolved to handle brief bursts of stress for immediate survival purposes, but chronic stress – even mild to moderate – is not good for long-term physical and mental health. Remember that negative emotions are stressful in their own right; it wears on body and mind to be chronically anxious, frustrated, irritated, hurt, or insecure.

What is one of the most effective practices for instant stress relief?
  • Activate the parasympathetic wing of your nervous system by taking several long exhalations, at least twice as long as your inhalation.
  • Notice that you are actually basically alright right now. Not perfect, but basically OK.
  • Bring to mind the felt sense of being with someone who loves you.
What can be done in order to support a shrunken hippocampus? Is there any indication that this shrinking can be undone?

In terms of how chronic stress and thus cortisol can damage the hippocampus, there are five kinds of good news:

  • New baby neurons are born in this part of the brain, encouraged by exercise and stimulation.
  • Existing synapses in the hippocampus can form new connections with each other.
  • Other parts of the brain can compensate, like the prefrontal regions that we can draw on if we slow down our emotional reactions by a few seconds. 
  • We can grow other psychological resources, embedded in neural structure and function, such as positive emotions, mindfulness, and wholesome intentions.
  • We can treat ourselves well, with compassion and encouragement and respect – thereby treating ourselves like we matter even if others didn’t (or don’t). 
I'm wondering how I can change my cortisol level, as I've been under severe stress for years. Is there anything I can do?

Regarding stress and cortisol, there are numerous things a person can do:

  • Physical activity metabolizes cortisol. Walking, etc. Plus it promotes neurogenesis (new neurons) in the hippocampus, which gets harmed by cortisol.
  • Oxytocin (released when we feel loved or loving) counters cortisol. Even if it’s hard to find others who love us, we can always love others (I’m using “love” broadly to include compassion, friendliness, good wishes, and warmheartedness).
  • Positive emotion – including mild but genuine experiences of pleasure, gratitude, beauty, accomplishment, fun, companionship, etc. – also helps clear cortisol, plus has many other benefits.
  • Meditation in one form or another deepens our sense of calm center, buffering us from stress.