When fear comes into our lives, we can either face it and overcome it or pretend it doesn’t exist through avoidance. The former allows us to maintain all regular activities while at the same time strengthens our confidence for the next time a fearful situation arises. However, the latter limits the scope of what we are able to accomplish and weakens us for any future adverse situations.
Crippling fear can be extremely disabling, reducing your ability to function which will inevitably lead to a decrease in your quality of life. For example, maybe you experienced heavy turbulence while on an airplane; in that moment you truly worried that you might go down in a fiery wreck. This led to other thoughts about airplanes such as the height you are flying at, the absurd amount of mechanical errors that could occur, and how hard it must be to land especially if it is windy. These thoughts ruminate in your mind and manifest as a sort of monster that comes out whenever the thought of an airplane pops into your mind.
Now there is no way that you can ride a plane without experiencing a panic attack or debilitating anxiety so it seems easier to avoid the situation altogether. However, this decision makes any long-distance travel out of the picture. This is fine if you enjoy long road trips or don’t mind isolation, but more than likely it will have vast undesired effects on your life. This could include never being able to travel to dream destinations overseas, not being able to see loved ones who live far away, missing job opportunities that require travel and many more.
When in a worrisome state, we are most likely falsely interpreting something in our environment as being a threat . This activates our sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as a “fight-or-flight” state. We try to escape to avoid getting injured, and what easier way is there to escape than avoiding the situation altogether? The main issue here is a constant anxious feeling that arises from knowing our fear still exists along with the regret of missing out important parts of life because of our avoidance. The constant worry about non-existent threats forces us into living our lives as a sort of illusion.
Whatever your fear may be, the result of avoiding them will almost certainly have more drastic consequences than the reason you are avoiding the fear in the first place. Facing your fears head on is no easy task, but it is crucial to conquering them. Exposure therapy may seem like you are just using brute force to solve the problem and while it may not be easy, it remains as one of the most effective strategies you can use to reduce fear.
There is a lot of practical information buried in the scientific primary literature regarding specific techniques and practices regarding exposure therapy. Some of the most useful that I will describe come from two papers, one authored by Falsetti and Resnick and the other by Foa and Kozak. While many of these methods can be practiced at home, if your fear is too overpowering don’t hesitate to see a trained therapist to help you overcome them.
Of the many aspects involved in conquering fear, two stand out as the most important. The first is that relevant information must be presented about the fear to give you a better understanding of what it is you’re are trying to overcome. Then, you must create a new relationship with the fear and integrate it into your existing fear structure. In other words, you must become acquainted with your fear and realize that facing it will not harm you. The first part focuses on making steps towards breaking through the barrier that your fear has constructed. This sets you up for the second part which involves a realization that you can conquer your fears using exposure techniques.
The first step to overcoming fear might seem a bit obvious, but many miss it. You must learn about your fear before you face it. By educating yourself, you can see the thing you fear from all angles which eliminates as many surprises as possible. Objective information also helps diminish the power you have attributed to your fear through constant rumination. Throughout the process, pick your top three fears and make a diary of all your findings and new things you have learned.
You need to learn facts and statistics about whatever is causing your fear. This is made much easier with the internet. Going back to our airplane example, the first step would be to search for general facts about how planes take off, gets to altitude, maintains altitude, lands, etc. Watch videos of airplane operation including sounds that you might hear and sights that are to be expected. Get as many insights as possible so that you won’t get thrown into a downward spiral (pun intended) when you feel a jolt or unexpected noises the next time you embark on a flight.
Try to learn as much as you possibly can about the background and then move into statistics. Statistics don’t always help, but they do allow us to achieve a baseline understanding of how irrational our fears may be. Thousands of flights are completed successfully every day with almost no incidence of failure.
While airplanes serve as a straightforward example, there are many other types of fear that may not have such a clear way of learning about them. For example, let’s say you suffer from social anxiety and you’re afraid of going to dinner in large groups. You may not know exactly what you’re afraid of. For these types, do your best to determine what it is. After examining your thoughts, you may find that the fear of others judging you is the root cause of your anxiety in a group setting. For this, there aren’t really statistics to help you out.
In this example, change your research to focus on the location and place you will be meeting along with who will be there. Maybe determine a few people that you can rely on throughout the experience to give you comfort. It is also helpful to search for other articles outlining the underlying causes for your specific fear so that you can better understand why you are feeling the way you are. For the statistics part, just think about the likelihood of your fear occurring. More often than not, most people aren’t going to spend the whole night judging you and you probably won’t spill your drink all over yourself. Whatever it may be, think about how unlikely it is to happen.
Once you have a grasp on some of the background information, it’s time to switch over to thinking about how holding onto the fear is affecting your everyday life. Write down the advantages and disadvantages of holding onto your beliefs, focusing on the disadvantages. Hopefully, you will see that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. This should encourage you to move towards overcoming the fear after you see the consequences of remaining a victim.
Avoiding going out to eat with large groups of people will mean you never have to worry about people thinking negatively of you, which is an advantage. However, staying away from these types of gatherings means that you will become more isolated, miss out on important events, and miss opportunities to make relationships with new people. The disadvantages will hurt you much more in the long run, so you might as well take the steps necessary to overcome that fear.
It’s very difficult to successfully overcome fear without having exposure to it. Because of this, many mental health experts have written about effective exposure therapy practices in the primary literature. I will go over some of the most helpful aspects of the therapy that I think anyone can implement to start chipping away at the mountain your fear has become.
In short, exposure therapy focuses on having you do things that you are afraid of so that you will get used to them. Using the same three fears from above, pick the one that you are least afraid of and would like to resume. This will hopefully allow you to build confidence in your ability to face your larger fears. Don’t worry though, the experts make sure that you work up to your fear so that you won’t ever be overwhelmed.
The worst thing that can happen is to jump off the deep end with your fear and fail, making you more afraid than you were in the first place. Because of this, we are going to start small to get you more acquainted with what the fearful activity feels like. Pick an activity that is related to your fear and feasible to do without failure, doing it a few times until you get comfortable with it. With our group social anxiety example, it would be a good idea to start off small by just getting coffee with a friend. It may be uncomfortable at first but knowing that it will get better makes it a bit more doable at first.
You will eventually become comfortable with the smaller activity that you chose which will be very encouraging. However, there is still more work to do before achieving your end goal of being free from fear. It’s time to pick a larger activity that pushes closer to your actual fear. This could possibly be going to lunch with a few close friends. Again, do this until you feel comfortable. Keep pushing farther and farther using the same technique.
In addition to the building up phase, visualization of your fear has been shown to be successful as well. This is a bit like meditating on your fear. The exercise won’t be particularly pleasurable, but it will help you along your journey to overcome your fear. Focus on visualizing what you are afraid of including specific aspects that are particularly frightful. Block out at least 25 minutes for this. Watching videos of people calmly interacting with what you are afraid of has been shown to be effective and can serve as a part of your visualization. Like all of the treatment, doing this often and consistently will yield the best results. Another benefit of visualization is that it can be done often and anywhere.
[To learn how meditation can help with anxiety, read more here.]
This is the part of exposure therapy that we have been building up to. By now, this is just another step like all the others. You should have worked up to something in the build-up phase that is not far behind what your fear may be. Facing the actual fear may be a daunting task, but with the confidence you have built from the previous training it is something you can accomplish. The first time will be the hardest, but as you do it more and more it will become easier, even to the point where you are comfortable with it. You can now resume the activity and avoid the disadvantages that came from not facing your fear.
This method of overcoming fears is synonymous with watching a scary movie but much more practical and beneficial in your daily life. Imagine flipping the channel to a particularly scary and disturbing movie. You watch it for a while but decide it is too fear-inducing so you change the channel (avoidance). Yet, despite changing the channel, the scenes from the movie are still in the back of your mind where they will stay unless you intervene. If you change the channel back, the scary movie will still be there waiting for you.
Now, if you force yourself to watch the whole movie and then repeat it a few times, the horror will likely fade and the movie may even become boring. The same happens with fearful and traumatic experiences. Ignoring it is like changing the channel; you have avoided the exact cause in the moment, but the fear remains. Fear exposure therapy allows you to habituate the fear and the experience becomes less frightful.
When we acquire an acute fear of something, our body and mind are most likely misinterpreting a threat that in reality won’t harm us. We instinctively go into “fight-or-flight” mode, activating the sympathetic nervous system. This activation works great if we are in the jungle being chased by a tiger, but in our everyday lives it can make things difficult.
Luckily, we can manage our bodies response through a few different techniques, one of which is diaphragmatic breathing. Put a bit more simply, this is what people mean when they say to ‘take slow, deep breaths’. However, more detail than that is needed to calm yourself effectively. Although breathing deeply and slowly will help to calm you down, it doesn’t quite capture all that can be done to when you are afraid and experience anxiety.
The title ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ encapsulates what you are actually doing, which is using your diaphragm to do the work of breathing. In other words, using your abdominal muscles rather than chest muscles to fill your lungs with air. This method of breathing holds a few other benefits such as strengthening your diaphragm, decreasing the effort needed to breathe, slowing heart rate, and decreasing your body’s demand for oxygen . It also helps us transition from the sympathetic fight-or-flight state to a parasympathetic calm state.
It is best to practice this at home before you embark on your fear exposure journey. Start by laying on your back with your knees slightly bent and head supported. Place one hand on your chest and another just below your ribcage so that you can feel where the inhaled air is being stored. Then, breathe in slowly through your nose using your abs to do the work. Instead of pushing out your chest as you breathe, your belly should push out against your lower hand. Try to not allow your chest to move which can be felt by the upper hand .
When you exhale, use the muscles in your belly. Your lower hand should move down as air exits and your upper hand should remain still. This may be a bit difficult at first since most of us naturally breathe with our chest muscles and have underdeveloped muscles that control the diaphragm. Practice 3-5 times per day for about five minutes at a time. Then move to sitting and standing once you feel more comfortable with the technique.
It is best to follow some sort of cadence when you are doing the breathing. For me, I like slowly counting to 4 on the inhale, pause, slowly counting to 4 on the exhale, pausing again and then repeating. Whenever you feel anxiety and fear coming on, start breathing using this technique to help calm yourself. While diaphragmatic breathing can be used all day, it is hard to always be mindful of how you are taking in air.
Writing has already been done as a crucial step throughout the process, but there are additional in-depth techniques that may be helpful. Broadly, write about the event or situation that causes your fear including what happened and why you are still afraid of it. More specifically, write down the emotions you feel around the fear and think about how it is just a memory and not an event that is reoccurring or one that will reoccur.
Identify which parts of the experience caused the most pain and trauma through your writing. As a part of this, identify distortions in your perceptions of your fear that were found through research. Allow yourself to let go of some self-blame that often occurs as trauma. It’s hard to accept this as a reality, but sometimes bad things do randomly happen to good people. Blaming yourself or others may just be a coping mechanism to make you feel safe, but again, sometimes negative events do happen randomly and likely won’t occur again. With that said, write about how you can prevent events that cause the fear or trauma from happening in the future as well. Both of these are meant to empower you over your fear.
Read what you have written daily and continue writing with this method as many times as you like. The more you do it, the more helpful it will be. Your first writing therapy session will likely be the most difficult, but like the scary movie example above, it will become easier and help you better understand your fear every time you do it. Although what happened may have been random, there is a reason and you are not completely helpless.
[If you’re interested in the benefits journaling can have for general anxiety, check out Journaling for Anxiety.]
Thought restructuring is a practice that branches from cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, the purpose is to restructure your thinking patterns to allow you the ability to view your fearful thoughts objectively. When you do this, you gain the ability to realize that what you are afraid of doesn’t warrant the fear you have attributed to it. Instead of restating how to go about thought restructuring, it would be more useful to head here to read an in-depth article about it on our blog.
Depending on your fear, the time it takes to overcome it will vary along with the difficulty. If it doesn’t work at first, the worst thing you can do for your wellbeing is give up. Go at it again in a safe manner, using as many techniques as possible to stay relaxed throughout the process. Also, as you do this try to weaken the link in your mind between the activity or situation and perceived harm. If you constantly have thoughts running through your mind that you will be harmed, you will stay in fight-or-flight mode which makes it almost impossible to reduce your fear.
While mental health experts have shown that exposure therapy can help many conquer their fears and achieve a higher quality of life, it won’t work for everybody depending on the type and severity of your specific fear. The above technique is great if you are comfortable with doing the training on your own or don’t have access to a therapist, but I would recommend seeing a therapist if you have the ability. With that said, I believe that with persistence you will be able to find success in reducing your fear and living the life you desire.
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