As kids, facing our fears is often a rite of passage. We learned there were not monsters under the bed or danger in the basement.
As we get older, facing our fears can become more complicated. But you don’t always have to overcome your fears — we obviously wouldn’t want to lose our fear of a speeding car or other real dangers.
Fear is a basic human emotion designed to motivate us to avoid danger, explains Seth Gillihan, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and the author of The CBT Deck for Anxiety, Rumination, and Worry.
A physiological arousal happens — what’s called the fight-or-flight response — that energizes you to move away from the threat.
Physiological changes triggered by fear include rapid heartbeat, redirection of blood flow away from the periphery toward the gut, and tensing of the muscles, according to the definition of fear from the American Psychological Association (APA).
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"Fear signals that there is danger and is a universal emotion experienced all over the world,” says Robin Stern, PhD, the associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in New Haven, Connecticut, and a codeveloper of an approach to emotional learning program called RULER (recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, regulating).
Fear is related but not synonymous with phobia or anxiety, Dr. Stern explains.
With anxiety, it’s the not knowing what’s going to happen that triggers the emotional response, she says.
Phobias are also different, says Dr. Gillihan, as they generally aren’t based on a present danger. The APA?defines phobias as persistent and irrational fears of a specific situation, object, or activity, like heights or blood.
Scientists agree that both genetics and environmental factors like learned habits and experiences have a role in why we develop specific fears and phobias, according to the APA.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders?assessed 10 studies on phobias and found evidence of “moderate heritability,” meaning there was some degree of genetic similarities between relatives who share a phobia. But the relationship between genes and environment is complicated. Phobias can often be traced to a specific incident, too — a dog bite leading to fear of dogs for example, says Gillihan.
What’s important to know is if and when you want to face your fears, there are steps you can take to do so.
Should All Fears Be Faced?
You need to feel ready to make that decision, says Gillihan. If you happen to fear something you can generally avoid like a giant tarantula, you may not feel a strong urge to face your fear, and that’s okay too. “It's always a cost-benefit analysis,” he says. The question is how much is this phobia interfering with your life?
When you’re afraid of something you can’t easily avoid (like an elevator), or if avoiding the thing you fear puts you at risk (like getting a shot at the doctor), there are clear benefits of facing that fear.
“It's always up to the person whether they want to face that fear.” But be honest with yourself, Gillihan adds: “Fear tends to grow when we avoid things.”
There are other situations where facing a fear may not work to your advantage, Stern says. Such might be the case if you have a toxic boss or you’re in an abusive relationship. Confronting the abuser to try to face that fear might bring you harm — and might not bring you any benefit, she says. In those cases, you will likely benefit most from avoiding harm until you can get yourself out of the situation, she says.
6 Tips for Facing Fears You Want to Get Over
Here are tips from Gillihan and Stern when it comes to facing your fears:
1. Stop Judging Yourself
Judging yourself negatively for being afraid of something is not going to help you face that fear. Instead, consider practicing reframing how you look at that fear, says Stern. Rather than thinking of being afraid as good or bad, consider it information your body is telling you, she explains. Then assess what value that information has and what to do about it.
2. Slow Down and Breathe From Your Belly
Stern helped develop a method called the “meta-moment.” To do it, pause and take a deep breath, which helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the system in your body that is responsible for rest, sleeping, and enjoyment, among other things. It’s the body’s calmed down (rather than active) state. When it's activated, you’re more likely to be able to think clearly.
Don’t rush your breath. Stern says, “If you try and breathe from high up in your chest, it's not going to be as effective,” as compared with slow, deep belly breaths. You can even put your hand on your belly and watch it go up and down to get it right.
3. Be an Emotion Scientist
Another way to reframe fear is to try and be what Stern calls an “emotion scientist.” Listen and be curious about what’s driving you to be afraid of something, rather than shutting down or ignoring it. Learn where that fear is coming from, Stern says. You might see a new way to face those fears, or you might realize there’s less to be afraid of than you thought.
4. Practice Positive Self-Talk
"Instead of being impatient, replace that negative self-talk with positive self-talk,” says Stern. Tell yourself: “I’ve got this. I’m going to get this. I’ve been here before, and I can do this.”
5. Try Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is a form of cognitive therapy that’s highly effective for treating specific fears and phobias. Patients are gradually and incrementally exposed to what they fear over time in a safe place. It’s critical that you feel ready, Gillihan says. “It's important for our brains to see that we are the ones who are choosing to confront what we're afraid of,” she says.
Research suggests that even a single session of therapy lasting four to six hours can be effective, says Gillihan. But if you can’t afford therapy, you can even use self-guided cognitive behavior therapy books or workbooks, he adds.
6. Medications May Help
Medications can be helpful in treating specific fears and phobias, though it’s important to discuss these options with your doctor. For example, beta blockers have been prescribed as a treatment for performance anxiety. Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed for anxiety disorders, but Gillihan cautions that these are addictive and typically have a sedative effect.
It can be hard to imagine the payoff, but Gillihan says that a real feeling of triumph and freedom comes from facing your fears, and that makes it all worth it. ”Once we decide to face what we’re afraid of, there’s almost nothing that can hold us back,” he says.