How to Face Your Fears, One Step at a Time

Step out of your comfort zone and see how far you can go.

Posted Jun 19, 2015

Ben Heys/Shutterstock
Source: Ben Heys/Shutterstock

As a psychotherapist, anxiety disorders—especially phobias—are my favorite problem to treat. When people step into my office with a debilitating fear, I'm confident that a little hard work and a willingness to step outside their comfort zone can help them conquer their anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are very common. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 18 percent of the adult population experiences an anxiety disorder every year. Approximately 9 percent of adults experience a phobia of some kind.

Whether you’re terrified of making a mistake at work, or the thought of public speaking makes you weak in the knees, it’s possible to overcome your fear once and for all. If your situation is on the mild end of the spectrum—perhaps you take the stairs because you’re terrified of elevators—you may be able to conquer your fear without the help of a professional.

Face Your Fear Systematically

Countless research studies have shown that exposure therapy is an effective way to treat conditions ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to obsessive compulsive disorder. In order for it to be effective, however, the exposure should be applied in an incremental manner.

The key to overcoming a debilitating fear is to start by doing something that is only slightly anxiety-provoking. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning no anxiety and 10 being equal to sheer terror, look for something that would raise your anxiety to level 4. Then, keep doing that activity until your anxiety decreases.

If you suffered from arachnophobia—the fear of spiders—you might start by looking at pictures of spiders. Eventually, your anxiety would dissipate and you could move onto the next step—perhaps watching a video of a spider. Eventually, you could sit in the same room with a spider who is safely placed in a jar with a secure lid.

The intention of exposure therapy is to keep working slowly and steadily until you reach your ultimate goal. For someone with a fear of public speaking, the ultimate goal might be to offer one comment each week during a meeting. For someone else, it might be giving a presentation in front of an audience of thousands. But either way, it’s important to define what success looks like to you.

Practice Imaginal Exposure When Necessary

Sometimes it’s impossible—or at least a lot more complicated—to use in vivo therapy. If you’re afraid of flying in an airplane, for example, it’s unlikely that a commercial airline is going to let you practice sitting on a plane for hours as you try to desensitize yourself to your fears.

In cases where real-life desensitization isn’t practical, imaginal exposure can be used. Visualizing yourself being exposed to what terrifies you can produce a spike in your anxiety. With consistent practice, visualization can desensitize you and make it easier to face your fear in real life.

Seek Professional Help 

Unfortunately, many people suffering from serious anxiety disorders don’t seek treatment. As a result, they miss opportunities to advance their careers, or their social lives suffer. If your anxiety is interfering with your daily life, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Therapists who specialize in treating anxiety disorders often have access to a variety of specialized techniques, ranging from biofeedback to virtual reality exposure therapy. In some cases, medication can also be used to help alleviate symptoms.

Imagine how productive could you be if you conquered your fears. When you’re no longer plagued by worrisome thoughts, and don’t need to waste time and energy trying to avoid things that make you anxious, you can invest your resources into reaching your greatest potential.

Learn more strategies in 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do.