There are many ways that a therapist might work with someone to help them overcome their fears, a phobia (like being afraid of snakes) or having a panic attack (where a person feels their heart beating, they are short of breath, and feel like they might die). Many therapists use what are called cognitive-behavioral techniques to help a person gain control over these kinds of irrational fears.
You can also learn more about these techniques on your own, and through self-help books. Keep in mind that not every technique is appropriate for every kind of concern or every person — some may work better than others for you. If you fail at one, don’t despair; it means you should either try again until you succeed with that technique, or try another one from the list.
1. The Experimental Method
Do an experiment to test your belief that you’re “cracking up,” having a heart attack, or losing control.
2. Paradoxical Techniques
Exaggerate your fears instead of running away from them. If you have the fear of cracking up or having a stroke, you try your hardest to crack up or have a stroke.
3. Shame-Attacking Exercises
Purposely do something silly in public, in order to overcome your fear of appearing foolish.
4. Confront Your Fears
Expose yourself to a frightening or high-anxiety situation instead of avoiding it and allowing your fear to control you. There are three common methods:
- Sudden Exposure or “Flooding.” You allow yourself to experience all your symptoms, no matter how bad they get. You endure your fears until they run their course and wear out.
- Gradual Exposure. You gradually expose yourself to whatever you’re afraid of (such as being away from home alone, going into grocery stores, or riding a bus or elevator). Thereafter, you withdraw when your anxiety becomes excessive.
- The Partnership Method. If you are afraid of walking alone, you can ask a trusted person to walk a certain distance ahead of you, and wait. After walking to meet her or him at the location, the individual will walk further ahead before you meet her or him again. This gradual method of managing fear-related anxiety will increase the distance to a point that you are able to walk reasonable distances alone.
5. Daily Mood Log
Write down the negative thoughts that make you feel anxious or frightened. Identify the cognitive distortions associated with those thoughts, and replace them with realistic and positive thoughts. Instead of worrying and constantly predicting failure and catastrophes, tell yourself that things will turn out reasonably well.
6. The Cost-Benefit Analysis
Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of worrying and avoiding whatever you fear. Weigh the advantages against the disadvantages (refer to the Cost-Benefit Analysis worksheet). Make a second list of the advantages and disadvantages of confronting your fears. Contrast the advantages with the disadvantages.
7. Positive Imaging
Substitute reassuring and peaceful images for the frightening daydreams and fantasies that make you feel excessively anxious.
Distract yourself with intense mental activity (e.g., crossword puzzle), strenuous exercise, or by getting involved with your work or a hobby.
9. The Acceptance Paradox
When you feel anxious or panicky, you may make matters worse by insisting that you should not feel that way. This type of verbal or sub-verbal negativity only increases your anxiety. One way to develop greater self-acceptance is to write out a dialogue with an imaginary hostile stranger who puts you down for feeling excessively anxious. The hostile stranger is simply a projection of your own self-criticism. When you talk back to that symbolic person, you will develop greater self-acceptance, and you are better able to manage your anxiety or fear.
10. Getting in Touch
When you feel anxious or panicky, you could be ignoring a problem that is best addressed instead of being ignored. Review your life, and identify situations that are making you feel uncertain and fearful. When you find the courage to address a problem such as the fear of rejection in a direct and open manner, a sense of calm will replace uncertainty or fear.
Burns, D.D. (1989). The feeling good handbook. New York: William Morrow.