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How to Keep Your Fears From Holding You Back

How to beat the fears that keep you from having a fuller and more confident life

Most people have fears and anxieties.  Often they are adaptive and rational emotional responses.  But in many cases, fears and anxieties are not adaptive or rational.  They do nothing but create huge and unnecessary barriers that block us from moving forward in life or simply from feeling better about ourselves. 

Both fear and anxiety produce similar reactions to certain dangers, but there are important differences between the two.

Fear is an emotional response to a known or definite threat.

For example, if while hiking in the woods you encounter a bear, you’ll likely have a strong fear reaction.  Hence, muscle tension, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing are a few of the physiological symptoms associated with a response to danger. These bodily changes occur due to the inborn fight-or-flight stress response that is necessary for survival.  Without this stress response, our mind would not prepare our body to stay and do battle (to try to be the diner) or flee as fast as possible (to try not to be the dinner).

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Unlike fear, anxiety is not the result of a known or specific threat.  Rather, it comes from our mind’s anticipation or expectation of dangers that may occur in a given situation.  So, if while hiking in the woods you feel very nervous that something dangerous or bad might happen because you’re imagining encountering a bear, a snake, or a landslide; you’re not afraid, you’re anxious.

As suggested above, regardless of whether they’re real dangers or imagined threats, for a great number of people fears and anxiety significantly impact their lives and, in some cases, dramatically limit them.  According to the most recent NIMH data, “Approximately 40 million American adults ages 18 and older, or almost 20 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have an anxiety disorder.”

So, what’s the antidote for irrational fear and anxiety?  In a word: “Exposure.”  As I have posted previously on depression (“Why you can’t just think your way out of depression”), similarly, it’s almost impossible to talk someone (or yourself) out of anxiety.  To escape its unpleasant grip, you must walk yourself out of it.  That is, to conquer fear and anxiety they must be faced and confronted, not avoided.  After all, how can someone ever hope to get over a fear of the dark by constantly staying in the light?

While it is of limited help to simply focus on the exaggerated, unrealistic, or irrational thoughts that drive anxiety and avoidance, this isn’t to say that cognitions (the C in CBT) are unimportant.  Indeed, one way to help people take the essential action and courageous behavior (the B in CBT) necessary to beat anxiety is to point out the three common cognitive errors that anxious people often make.

First, anxious people often confuse low possibly calamities (i.e., very unlikely, bad events) with high probability occurrences (i.e., very likely events).  So, instead of recognizing and deeply believing that accidentally driving off a bridge is extremely unlikely, a bridge phobic will deeply feel it could probably happen.  In other words, anxious people often mistake the possible for the probable and thereby greatly overestimate the odds of something bad happening.

The second cognitive mistake common in anxiety is to grossly overestimate the actual impact of bad events.  In other words, anxious people usually believe that if something bad happens, it will produce a dramatic or even devastating consequence that might be too much to handle.  So, a driving phobic often feels that if he or she has a collision, it will result in life-changing or even fatal consequences rather than recognizing that the vast majority of MVAs are mere fender-benders that rarely cause serious injuries.

Thus, anxious people greatly overestimate the chances of a dreaded event happening and also the seriousness of the consequences of the bad event if it actually happens.

Another common misperception that anxious people have is to underestimate their coping resources and their ability to manage life’s many challenges.  Once people recognize the many supports and wherewithal they can rely on (e.g., personal fortitude, family, friends, neighbors, professionals, clergy, etc.), they often feel a little better.     

Hence, when people learn the true facts, accurate statistics, and real odds of specific, dreaded occurrences, and they become more aware of their coping resources, they usually find it easier to start taking the concrete, action steps necessary to beat anxiety.  Specifically, ones that emphasize approaching and gradually facing the anxiety-provoking situations that have been holding them back.  Only by realizing that their fear barriers are insubstantial – mere tricks of the mind like mirages are tricks of the senses; seemingly real but not grounded in reality – can people push through them. And, thereby, move forward in life with more confidence and less fear.

 Remember:  Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

 Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D., is Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute.

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