Few said it better than Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” And while that’s a powerful quote, making it a reality is far easier said than done.
Though it’s hard to believe when you’re in the moment, some level of fear is good for us. “Fear is a universal human emotion, programmed into the nervous system to help us identify and protect ourselves from danger,” says clinical psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., Director of Life Management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass. It can become problematic, however, when the alarm sounds not only in response to appropriate fears, like being in a dangerous situation, but also to things that aren’t necessarily harmful, like flying in an airplane or speaking in front of a group. If you’ve had this experience, you may regret how it kept you from enjoying a moment to its fullest or putting your best foot forward.
You don’t have to accept that your fear will forever impact you the way it does today, says Rossman. If conquering it head on feels like too much to ask of yourself, try these strategies for surmounting what scares you—and get closer to living your most fulfilled life.
Think it through. “The emotional part of our brains must listen to the rational part,” Rossman says. So the next time fear arises, ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen—and what the odds of that thing actually happening are. Analyzing the situation logically may help you realize that there’s little (if not nothing) to fear.
Educate yourself. The more informed we are about a subject, the less scary it may seem, since often what we fear is simply the unknown. For example, you may worry about encountering snakes in the park until you learn that one hasn’t been sighted there in years.
Visualize. Imagine yourself successfully overcoming your fear. For example, picture yourself boarding an airplane with confidence, taking off smoothly, snoozing through the flight, landing with ease and then receiving a warm welcome at the gate. This technique is part of systematic desensitization, a highly successful treatment for those with phobias (fears that severely impact one’s daily life).
Take baby steps. Approach your fear slowly and in small doses. If a bad divorce has left you afraid of intimacy, get to know members of the opposite sex as friends (not prospective partners) while doing something you enjoy, such as participating in a book club or taking a class in a subject of interest.
Act, don’t react. Nip panic in the bud. Recognize what’s happening and assure yourself that everything is and will continue to be all right. Actively calm yourself with deep breathing and positive imagery (think about a favorite vacation spot, or your niece’s cute face), or distract yourself—open a book or strike up a conversation.
Turn disadvantage into advantage. “A big part of dealing with fear is handling its effect on your body,” Rossman says. If adrenaline starts pumping and your heart begins to race, reassure yourself that it’s only anxiety and that it will subside if you don’t panic. After all, a similar rise in adrenaline occurs when you are stimulated by a pleasant surprise or engage in physical exercise. Mind-shifting in this way can help you calm your nervous system and bring physical and emotional peace.
Take charge of your imagination. Fear looms large there, but don’t be afraid to fight back. For instance, create your own super-human alter ego whose powers include the ability to defeat your fear, and send that “person” out to conquer the next time you find yourself in a fearful situation.
Talk about it. Holding fear inside can cause it to magnify and mutate. Don’t be embarrassed to discuss what worries or intimidates you with a trusted friend or family member, or reach out to a therapist, who can also help you implement the tips we've shared here. Rely on that person to remind you that some fears are justified, while others may be less based in reality. Remember that everyone has struggled with fear at one time or another, so you are far from alone. Simply recognizing and verbalizing your fear may be enough to help minimize it.