We all feel fear from time to time. In fact, fear is a normal part of life designed to protect us from danger. But sometimes, fear shifts from being a response to immediate danger, into an irrational, persistent companion, and it ends up holding us back from living the fullest life that we can.
The good news is that this can be changed! Whether your fear is big, small, somewhere in the middle, or it runs constantly in the back of your mind, you can overcome it if you commit to doing a bit of work.
To help you on your way, we’ve created a guide to help you stop fearing your fears below.
What is fear and how does it work?
Fear is a basic survival tool that was used by our ancestors to run from large predators, and it is perfectly natural and good when it comes in response to a real and immediate danger, like a strange person breaking into your house.
Fear becomes a problem, however, when it is irrational, extreme, not based on fact, or does not make rational sense.
How fears are created
Now we know what fear is, let’s have a look at how it is created.
Most psychologists believe that fears are learned. After all, a baby is not born afraid of fire, water, snakes, aeroplanes, relationships, failure, rejection, heights, public speaking or the dark.
These fears are developed as a result of a first-hand negative experience, or from watching another person have a negative experience, or even from watching another person fear something.
Fear can also be learned through instruction, for example, your parent tells you that snakes are deadly, so you develop an irrational fear of them.
Strategies for coping and overcoming fear
Recognise what things trigger your fear
The first step to stop fear in its tracks is to recognise situations and things that make you feel fearful. Whenever you notice this fear, stop and ask yourself: “what are the thoughts that I am currently thinking?”
Often fear is prompted by distorted thoughts. The most common distorted ways of thinking include:
- Filtering – You take the negative details and focus on them, while ignoring the positives.
- Black and white thinking – Things are 100% good or 100% bad, there is no middle ground.
- Overgeneralisation – Because something happened to you one time, it will always happen.
- Jumping to conclusions – We ‘mind read’ other people and think that we know what they are thinking and feeling. For example, someone yawns when they talk to you, so you assume that they are bored of you (not that they had no sleep the night before).
- Catastrophising – You think and focus on the worst case scenarios. For example, you feel some turbulence in flight so you think that your plane will crash.
- Personalisation – You assume blame for negative things that are out of your control. You also spend a lot of time comparing yourself to others.
- Emotional reasoning – You believe what you feel must be true automatically regardless of the facts.
- Labelling – You take one thing and apply it to a whole. For example, I failed a test so I must be a failure.
Identify which types of thoughts you have when your fear begins to kick in, then challenge those thoughts with logic and reasoning as they come up.
- What is the evidence to support this thought? What is the evidence to discredit it?
- Are my thoughts based on feelings rather than facts?
- Is this thought a habit rather than something based on truth?
- Am I jumping to conclusions?
- Am I assuming my view of things is the only one possible? Look at the situation from a different perspective and ask yourself “what is the likelihood of this happening?”
- What is the worst that can happen? Is this really likely to happen and where is the factual evidence for this?
- Is this real danger or perceived danger?
Visualise overcoming your fear
It may sound funny, but visualising what you fear may significantly lessen your fear of it. To do this, visualise in detail a situation which you fear. Now imagine yourself confidently moving through the situation. Nothing goes wrong and you actually enjoy the experience.
It may take a while to perfect this exercise, but when you do this visualisation regularly you will find your fear of the situation gets less and less. In essence, you rehearse for success.
What advice would you give a friend?
If your friend were facing the same situation as you fear, what advice would you give them? Usually we reserve our best advice for others, and yet we never take the same advice ourselves.
So, next time your fear crops up, ask yourself “what would I tell my friend” and then follow that advice.
Breathing and relaxation techniques
Fear is usually accompanied by physical responses. When you learn to calm these responses you are able to take control of your fear and stop it quickly.
People in fear breathe faster and this sets the scene for the beginning of a range of physical symptoms, from a racing heart, to sweaty palms and trembling. So physically, the first thing you should focus on when fear strikes is your breathing.
When faced with a fear, stop, focus in on your breathing.
- Place one hand on your stomach and draw a deep slow breath in through your nose for a count of 8 seconds. Make sure you breathe deep into your belly, not your chest. Your hand on your stomach should move out with your belly as you fill up with air.
- Pause for 2 seconds.
- Breathe out through your nose slowly for a count of 11 seconds.
- Do this for five to ten minutes. You will be amazed at how calm you feel.
Sometimes fears are so big, or have been around for so long that facing them all at once would be too overwhelming. Instead, gradual exposure is a good idea.
Gradual exposure works by slowly and repeatedly introducing yourself to the feared situation, building up more and more until you are finally able to face the situation without the high level fear you once felt.
An example of this is, if you fear dogs, start by looking at photos of dogs, then videos of dogs, then pat a puppy, then take a puppy for a walk, then pat a dog.
Alternatively, if you fear rejection, try smiling at 10 people a day for a week. Next, aim to say hello to 10 people a day for a week and so on.
You are a capable person. You have skills and abilities that you are a master of. You have walked through difficult times and have come through them. You have the skills to survive. It is time to start trusting yourself and your abilities.
Realistically assess your personal ability. Take some time to write down all the skills that you have, as well as the difficulties that you have come through. This piece of paper is a building block for trusting yourself. When fear comes, remind yourself of this list and that you are wholly capable of moving through this fear and living a fear-free life!
You don’t have to live with fear. No matter how long you have feared something or how high your anxiety is, you can learn ways to rid yourself of fear. It just takes a bit of determination, persistence and courage. And remember, courage is not the absence of fear, it is doing something in spite of your fear.
Do you want to make a change in your life?
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