No one is immune to feeling afraid from time to time. A close call at a busy intersection, an elevator that looks like it may be slightly overdue for an inspection, a presentation in front of your boss at work—there are infinite possibilities for fear to overcome your day-to-day.
However, when this fear becomes crippling, seeping into seemingly every aspect of your life, it can quickly become problematic. It’s the type of fear that stops you in your tracks before you even get a chance to give something a try. It could be as simple as avoiding speaking up at work for fear you’ll face judgment or criticism or failing to commit to a relationship because the thought of rejection is too much.
Sometimes all it takes is getting up the courage to try—and fear dissipates. Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy to make that first move. It can take time to work up the strength to stare fear in the face and train your mind to recognize when panic is warranted or not.
Like anything else, it will take practice to overcome it. But when you do, you might be amazed at the reward.
Nothing but a Novelty
Can you remember the first time you learned to ride a bike without training wheels? Or the first time you took that leap of faith off a diving board? Chances are, the experience was somewhat frightening—maybe it even took you a couple times of stepping back before you could actually do it. But you did it. And after repeating it a few more times, you probably forgot about how terrified you were in the first place.
This is a basic principle of fear—habituality. The more you are exposed to your fear, the less frightened you will be. For example, a child who grows up with a dog is not likely to be afraid of dogs. However, a child who was raised without pets might be hesitant to approach a friend’s pup on the first encounter. It’s unfamiliar territory, and without the ability to predict the outcome, your mind can race through a myriad of potentially negative scenarios. Will the dog be friendly? What if he bites me? Although the worst-case scenario is not the most probable, it’s the one your brain likes to resort to in order to protect you, even if you don’t necessarily need protection.
The same can be applied to any anxiety or fear you might experience. Until you expose yourself to it, you allow your brain to manifest any number of debilitating probabilities. Is exposure scary? Yes. But is it effective? Also, yes.
When it came to riding a bike or jumping into the deep end, you may have been told something along the lines of “Just do it.” For many of our childhood fears, the simplest answer is to face them headfirst. But children are often easier to coax because they haven’t yet experienced many setbacks. As an adult, however, this is not usually the case. You’re wiser to the potential of failure, and it can easily hold you back.
In some instances, you may find it easier (and more effective) to expose yourself to your fear slowly through a process called graded exposure. This involves taking small steps toward conquering your fear, with a goal to reduce the amount of anxiety you experience each time until it is manageable (or even until it disappears completely). For example, if you’re afraid of meeting new people, don’t just throw yourself into a crowd. Set up steps to meet people slowly, which could look something like this:
Step 1: Say hello to one new person each day.
Step 2: Introduce yourself to one new person at work.
Step 3: Invite an acquaintance to lunch.
Step 4: Attend a social event and introduce yourself to one new person.
Connecting the Dots
Once you manage to expose yourself to your fear, you might be wondering, “What happens if it doesn’t go well? What happens if I fail?” The truth is, you might not have a successful experience the first time. You might introduce yourself to a person with whom you have trouble connecting, or a presentation might not go exactly as planned. However, the good news is the more frequently you try something, the less likely you are to fail over time. Like playing a sport or learning an instrument, practicing can help you become better at working past your fear, naturally reducing your anxiety surrounding it.
Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” And that statement can ring true for many of us. Exposure may help you realize that what you were afraid of wasn’t necessarily the object or behavior but the feelings of fear itself. Your anxieties can be overwhelming, and training your brain to differentiate between necessary fear versus needless fear is a challenge. There is no such thing as a life completely void of fright, but you’d be amazed how much easier it is to get through your day without the worries that prevent you from actually living. You have the power to conquer your fear—all you have to do is start.
For more info, visit psychologytoday.com