We know that the best way to deal with our fears is to face them. But, naturally, this sounds like a terrifying proposition. After all, these are the very situations, experiences and events that we fear.
Thankfully, we can learn healthy ways to approach our fears instead of avoiding and denying them, which most of us understandably do, because these strategies feel better in the short term.
For starters, it helps to determine whether you need to confront a fear in the first place. For instance, it’s totally reasonable not to face a fear of volcanoes if you don’t live near an active one, said Joe Dilley, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety. However, if your fear is stopping you from visiting Hawaii, it might be something to look into.
In other words, does your fear lead you to living a less fulfilling life? Is your fear worth confronting?
Such fears are likely worth it: standing up for yourself; telling someone something that’s hard to hear; and giving a speech, Dilley said.
He also stressed the importance of pursuing fears when we’re prepared. For example, if you don’t have a plan for moderating your arousal when you confront your fear, you can experience “a tidal wave of a natural fear reaction.” This can lead you to retreat and then view your encounter as a defeat versus a victory, he said.
Below, Dilley shared the best techniques for facing our fears.
Engage in relaxation exercises.
As mentioned above, it’s important to temper your physical arousal. Dilley suggested doing so by practicing deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. He shared the below example.
“Rate your overall level of arousal/stress/anxiety from 0 (lowest) to 10 (highest). Relax in your chair or lie down. Take slow, deep belly breaths. We will sync our breathing with the flexing, holding, and releasing of our muscles.
Beginning with the toes, curl your toes downward and “scrunch up” your feet, inhaling through the nose. Do both of these actions simultaneously for a 4-count. 1-2-3-4. Now, hold your breath and keep your feet and toes tight for a 7-count . . . Slowly release your breath through your mouth, ideally resting your tongue against the roof of your mouth, simultaneously releasing the tension in your feet . . . for an 8-count. Take a few slow, deep breaths without holding your breath.
Move up the body to the next muscle group: the calves. Flex, hold, and release those in sync with your breath, just as you did before. 4-7-8. Before moving to the next muscle group, pause once again to take a few uninterrupted, slow, deep belly breaths. Move up to the hamstrings, and so on, until you’ve done all the major muscle groups, concluding with scrunching up your face!
Along the way, notice (nonjudgmentally) the difference in sensation (temperature, tingling, tightness, etc) of the body parts you’ve flexed and those you haven’t. Rate your overall level of arousal/stress/anxiety now.”
Visualize yourself overcoming your fear. Realistically.
“When rehearsing success, the key is to see yourself as competent, confident and calm,” said Dilley, who co-founded a private practice in Los Angeles with his wife, Dr. Carrie Dilley. Be realistic. Don’t envision yourself performing superhero stunts, since you’ll be disappointed when you can’t replicate that in real life, he said.
Take the example of jury duty. Avoid seeing yourself interrupting the selection process, not getting called or getting to go home, Dilley said. Instead, “see yourself successfully completing your duties, even if you are called into a courtroom for more of the selection process.”
See yourself sitting calmly in your chair and listening intently. “You feel grateful that justice is being pursued and that you, as a registered voter, are invited to participate in this particular jury selection process.” Visualize responding to the judge’s simple questions. When the judge asks whether you can be fair and impartial, visualize responding “yes” and then responding “no.” Visualize asking to speak to the judge and lawyers privately to talk about why you said no. Visualize being selected and participating to the best of your ability. And visualize not being chosen and going home with gratitude.
Speak to yourself using supportive words.
Pay attention to the way you talk to yourself. Being negative and minimizing your abilities only perpetuate your fear and amplify your anxiety. As Dilley said, there’s a big difference between telling yourself, “Man, I always have this problem. I’m such a coward. What’s the matter with me?” and “I do tough things all the time. Some of my favorite accomplishments are ______. So this is going to be a new ‘first’ for me, even though I currently struggle with it. What a relief it’ll be when this no longer holds me back.”
He shared these other helpful statements, which you can tell yourself:
- “This is gonna be really hard. But I can do hard things.”
- “All I can do is all I can do.”
- “My objective is to _____. My task is to ____. My responsibility right now is ____.”
In other words, empower yourself. Dilley’s childhood friend was a starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2009 Super Bowl. His friend “had an entire conversation with himself in the mirror before the game, just hyping himself up, describing the utter domination he was about to exercise.”
Think small steps and pieces.
By their very nature, fears are overwhelming. So it’s tremendously helpful to break down “the overall objective into short, manageable and realistic goals,” said Dilley, the author of The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug & Reconnect in the Digital Age.
For instance, if you have a blood phobia, you wouldn’t rush to your blood draw. Instead, Dilley said, you might practice scheduling the appointment; walking up to the office door; and sitting in the waiting room until you’re ready to complete these now familiar steps and actually have your blood drawn.
Now that you’ve read the strategies, you might be wondering what’s the barometer for success. According to Dilley, the goal is relative peace with your fear, such as: “Well, I did it. Sure, that wasn’t my favorite experience. It’s not even one I’d seek out again. But now I know that if I encounter it again, I’ll be able to cope pretty effectively and get through it.”
That is, we succeed by showing up, reminding ourselves that we got this. And this doesn’t have to be perfect. After all, life never is.
Fear of flying photo available from Shutterstock