How to Keep Your Fears from Holding You Back
Officially, fear is defined as an unpleasant emotional state around real or imagined danger that brings about psychological and physiological responses in the body. But we know it as those nasty feelings that cause our palms to sweat, heart to race and our stomach to do somersaults that make us feel like we could just throw up. (Or is that just me?)
Sometimes fear can be beneficial — alerting us to very real dangers and spurring us to action. But other times it can be paralyzing or, at the least, frustrating. The good news: While you may not be able to banish those negative fear-based thoughts entirely, there are ways to bypass them. Here are four tactics for fighting your fears.
Being Afraid of Doing Something Outside Your Comfort Zone
I’m not shy, but getting up in front of an audience to speak publicly turns me into a red-faced, hyperventilating mess. I even tried popping a beta-blocker once, but all I got was an eye-twitch during my abysmal grad school presentation. My way to deal with public speaking today is simple: I avoid it.
Fight the Fear: Research from the journal Psychological Science, says there’s a better solution: Watching others do what you fear over and over can actually condition you to be less afraid, according to the study authors from Karolinksa Institutet in Sweden. The study’s breakthrough? This “vicarious social learning” may even be more effective at helping me overcome my fear than forcing myself to experience it over and over. Said the study authors: "Our findings suggest that model-based learning may help to optimize exposure treatment by attenuating the recovery of learned fears."
How Fear Exaggerates What You See In Your Mind
If the idea of giving blood brings to mind the size of that massive needle, chances are you’re making it up. Fear plays tricks on our memories, making us frightened of things that are just aren’t as bad as you think.
Fight the Fear: Scientists from Ohio State University recently learned just how deeply visual perception can influence those with phobias. The study, published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, followed brave participants with a fear of spiders for eight weeks, as they were exposed to tarantulas of varying sizes and asked to guide them in a tank with a stick, while reporting their fear factor on a scale of 0 to 100. But when the subjects were asked later to recall the size of the arachnids, those who had the highest levels of distress also overestimated their size.
The best strategy to treat any phobia, according to the American Psychiatric Association, is to confront the fear gradually. So if you’ve been avoiding giving blood, which requires sitting long enough to extract a pint from your vein, try going for a quick flu shot this year instead. By exposing yourself to the fear face on, but gently over time, you’ll eventually become used to it and actually forget the terror you once felt.
Fighting Unexplainable Fears
Tourists have something over me: I’m a lifelong New Yorker, but I’ve never climbed to the top of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. My fear of heights isn’t rational, but talking it out with friends hasn’t helped. They just don’t understand.
Fight the Fear: Actually, if I just talk it out with the 102nd floor of Lady Liberty, the actual objects of my fear, I may be able to get over my anxiety. Stay with me: UCLA psychologists recently found that to face your fear, expressing it directly with what’s stressing you out can help. In this Psychological Science journal study, arachnophobes who looked in the eyes of spiders and expressed verbally their fear to the creepy crawler actually said they felt less afraid afterward. Counter to what we commonly assume about fears — that verbalizing them will make matters more emotional and worse — naming them can actually cut down on the fright.
How Fear Can Translate to Physical Pain
If the thought of setting up a household budget or filing your tax returns gives you a headache, experts say you may just have a phobia about numbers. Sometimes a fear is so subtle that you may not even realize it’s at the root of your avoidance of a task.
Fight the Fear: University of Chicago psychologists have found that those who get a feeling of dread around numbers actually feel physical pain when working on equations. “The anticipation of math is painful,” found study author who measured the brain waves of subjects and discovered that some areas lit up in the same manner as if being hurt.
Stepping back, it’s important to recognize that, sometimes, aches and pains may not mean you have a physical ailment, but a mental worry or fear that’s making you sick. Thanks to stress hormones that cause a “fight or flight” response around perceived danger, physical manifestations include headaches, nausea, muscle aches, even trembling or shortness of breath. A possible antidote? Consider popping a Tylenol, found University of British Columbia researchers. Known as a pain reliever, the active ingredient acetaminophen appears to also lower our anxiety and fear. Courage in a bottle has been in our medicine cabinets all along.