How to Derail Anxiety & Fear: Strategies Backed By Evidence

Nerves. They can feed irrational decisions, rob us of sleep, destroy on-demand performance or limit desired activities. Nerves get to everyone. We all feel it. I’ve felt it.  So, in my mission to help people with evidence based info, I thought I would learn why anxiety happens and if there’s anything we can do about it.

Can we overcome anxiety? Sure looks like we need to.


Growing Concern

Surging ahead of depression, anxiety has become the most prevalent mental health issue in the United States, and stress-related ailments now cost the nation an estimated $300 billion per year in medical bills and lost productivity.

The anxiety trend is scary.

From: Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool

“Americans more than doubled their yearly spending on anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, from $900 million to $2.1 billion…Security and modernity haven’t brought us calm; they’ve somehow put us out of touch with how to handle our fears.”

Not only that, but many anti-anxiety pills contribute to weight gain and a “ho-hum” attitude for patients. Some people on anti-anxiety meds will tell you they just don’t feel motivated to do anything. Sure, a medication can reduce anxiety, but it zaps motivation too.

(For expert insights to how to get yourself motivated, click here).

So what causes anxiety? The amygdala. It’s the fear center of the brain.

Low Road Vs. High Road

Everybody knows it’s wise to take the “high road” in life. We’ve heard it before. Let’s be reasonable here!

If only it were that easy when our amygdala gets aroused. Taking the “high road” ain’t happening when the amygdala fires. It takes the “low road” and wins every time.

Summarizing from neurology researcher Joe LeDoux, author of the Emotional Brain, the “low road” of the amygdala is a lightening fast superhighway to the fear center. Information it transmits is raw and low in detail. The whole “low road” process takes about 12 milliseconds.

How’s that compare with the “high road’?

The same info processed via the “high road” to the brain cortex runs more slowly. It takes 30 to 40 milliseconds and generates a much clearer picture of the situation; a more rational perspective takes place.

Based on the speed in the brain, it’s safe to say that fear reactions of the “low road” are irrational. They have no reason because they don’t take a rational road.

Said differently, fear doesn’t respond well to reason.

Ever try to calm some one down when they feel threatened? Reason doesn’t work. It’s not on the same road in the brain. In other words, we can’t out think anxiety or worry.

But we can create some amygdala detours with some off-road driving.

Off-Road Drivers

What’s the secret of the cool, calm and collected?

We’re about to find out.

In this post, we’re going to learn a handful of evidence-based strategies to deal with general anxiety and fear from some of the top experts on the planet.  And for more detailed strategies, I’ve prepared a list of the most highly recommended resources on the subject.

First, let’s learn a few evidence-based ways to embrace some fear and go with the flow of off-road driving.


Label Em

Feeling anxious? Label your worried thought or feeling that’s troubling you.

It will do wonders to calm the nerves and relax the amygdala.

In a 2007 study, the UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman showed thirty volunteers fear-provoking images and then asked them to note the feelings (“I feel afraid”) as he monitored their brain activity. Upon seeing the unpleasant images, the subjects’ amygdala lit up at first, but the labeling process soon sparked activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, damping activity in the amygdala.

Simply labeling or putting feelings into words turns down the fear center.  Sometimes just talking to a friend or good listener can do that too.

No one to talk to at the moment?  Talk out loud. Listening to your own words can be just as helpful.

Not a talker? Try journaling.  It’s an anxiety reducer.

Via Expressive Writing:

reports of depressive symptoms, rumination, and general anxiety tend to drop in the weeks and months after writing about emotional upheavals.”

Focus on the Outside

Know why some folks choke on tests? Because their working memory gets so overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts and feelings that memory recall fails.  The low road blocks the entry to the high road as the intense feelings of anxiety limit working memory access.

Time for a detour.

From: Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool

Training test takers to focus on an external task at hand instead of on their internal emotions and worries is the most obvious structural fix.

Research shows this works. And I found it to be true from experience.

I once suffered from tremendous test anxiety in college. My grades suffered. But by learning to focus on the outside my term GPA went from a 2.6 to a 3.6.

How did I focus on the outside?

I focused on the question at hand instead of my anxiety. I read one question, blocked all others with a blank piece of paper and took time to think. Then I read one answer at a time, blocked out all others and took time to think.

This allowed me to access the high road of my working memory. As I focused on the outside, the correct answers stood out while anxiety subsided.

Prior to focusing on the outside, anxiety would build and I’d feed it by rushing through the test like it was a race to survive, making several mistakes along the way.

Focus not your thing?  How about breathing.

Breathe Tactically

When we’re anxious or stressed, breathing becomes quick and shallow. Quick breathing feeds anxiety and fear in our bodies.

What’s the fix?

Try the method that combat psychologist Dave Grossman teaches to his students on gritty battlefields and in tense university testing halls:

From: Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool

Slowly draw air through your nose down into your abdomen for four leisurely counts (you can place a hand on your stomach to make sure you’re breathing in correctly), hold for four counts, exhale through your mouth for four counts, hold again for four counts, then repeat as necessary.

Yogis say the breath is the bridge between the mind and the body. When you slow your breath, you calm your body, exiting the “low road”. Anxiety dissipates – poof!

Breathing techniques not for you?

Loosen up with levity.

Joke Around

Ever watch Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man compete in the Olympics? Moments before a race, the 3-time gold medal champion is joking around, making silly hand gestures and smiley faces at the camera. He stays loose.

In tense moments, like a gold medal race in the Olympics, humor changes the brain.

If we wanted to get clinical about it, we could explore how humor activates the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the very same region that inhibits the amygdala.”

When asked how he felt after the Olympic semifinals of the 200 M sprint in Rio De Janeiro, Bolt said, “My body felt smooth.” Bolt settled his nerves under pressure.

Still on the “low road” after using these easy-to-try techniques? Here’s a few more amygdala off ramps…

“Low Road” Exits

First, from the supplement world, Natural Stress Relief is backed by clinical research to calm the nerves and reduce anxiety.

(To see the online reference guide for safe and effective supplements, click here.)

Now for some awesome resources…

For effective, research-backed guidance on how to deal with general anxiety and phobias, begin with:

Mastery of Your Anxiety and Panic: Workbook (Treatments That Work)

The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

For a more in depth look at how to address worry, pick up…

The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You

The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You – Audio CD

The Worry Trap: How to Free Yourself from Worry & Anxiety using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Want to explore the neuroscience of fear? Check out…

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life

Searching for the spiritually-wise perspectives of fear and life’s challenges? Order…

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambhala Classics)

Seeking a straightforward guide to dealing with performance anxiety and stage fright?  Grab a copy of these…

Notes from the Green Room: Coping With Stress and Anxiety in Musical Performance

In The SpotLight, Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking and Performing

Planning on fighting crime or visiting a war zone and need a fuller picture of how the mind responds to lethal encounters? Get…

On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace

If you’d like to know more about surviving emergencies, disasters, and all varieties of catastrophe, pick up…

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why


 It’s normal to be anxious and afraid sometimes. Suppressing emotions, worrying and avoiding what scares us only perpetuates fear and anxiety. Here’s what works:

  1. Label Em – Write or speak about anxious thoughts and worries to calm the amygdala.
  2. Focus on the Outside – Focus on task at hand instead of inside feelings keeps the mind clear for mental tasks.
  3. Breathe Tactically – Inhale 4 seconds, hold for 4, exhale for 4 to keep cool under stress.
  4. Joke Around – Light heartedness inhibits the amygdala for poise under pressure.
  5. “Low Road” Exits – Use some evidence-based resources above to derail specific anxiety and fear concerns.

Thank you for reading!


P.S. Please share my mission to help friends have more poise under pressure and serenity under stress, forward this email to them.

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About Dave Barnas, M.S., CES, NASM-CPT

Dave is the true health guy. He is the founder and owner of True Health Unlimited, LLC, a personal health and fitness company in Tolland, CT & Wellness Writers, a subscription wellness newsletter service that incorporates live & virtual wellness workshops for companies across New England. Dave earned both a Bachelor's (1998) and Master's Degree (2000) in Nutritional Science from the University of Connecticut, and also holds certifications as a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer, National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, Aerobics and Fitness Association of America Group Instructor, and Nutrition Specialist. He's also the lead author for four published works. Dave has over 20 years of combined experience in nutrition counseling, dietary supplement advising, personal training, corrective exercise training, health coaching and public speaking. In addition, he's spent over 25 years studying spirituality, meditation, and personal growth strategies. Dave's clients are all ages: youth, college championship level athletes, folks in their retired years, and everywhere in between. He's worked with three of the nation's leading physicians as a dietary supplement advisor and been a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Yale University, UConn, St. Joseph College and various church groups, health clubs, and high schools. In 2013, he was invited to Whole Foods Market to share his Real Food Therapy Guide. And in 2015, Dave's funny "Snowga" (yoga in the snow) video caught the attention of The National Weather Channel, who aired it to shake off cabin fever and bring laughter. In 2016, Dave & Hollie (his wife) founded Wellness Writers and deliver evidence-based Wellness E-newsletters to spread a message of health and happiness to various businesses throughout the US. Dave currently serves as a personal trainer in Tolland as well as a wellness coach and writer for several businesses, gyms and wellness facilities throughout the US.

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