Fear impacts everyone. Actor Dean Martin was terrified of elevators. Actor Johnny Depp is reportedly afraid of clowns. From an evolutionary standpoint, fear serves as a survival mechanism, drawing humans and animals away from perceived danger. But while some fears have value, many others are irrational and unnecessary, serving only to inhibit rather than protect. For example, if you are afraid to step into a lion’s cage, you are probably very wise, but if you fear speaking in front of a large crowd, your phobia is largely irrational. Public speaking presents little if any physical danger, assuming you do not have a violently hostile crowd in front of you. You can overcome your unnecessary and inhibitory fears, but you will have to step outside your comfort zone.
With any fear, you must first ask yourself, “What am I really afraid of?” For example, you might say, “I’m afraid of bugs,” but there is more going on beneath the surface. What specifically unnerves you about insects? Is it the potential of being bitten or poisoned? Is it simply the thought of having slimy creatures crawl on your skin? Maybe it’s just the fact that insects can easily hide in plain sight. A fear of insects, or entomphobia, has some rational aspects, since some bug bites and stings pose a legitimate danger, but if you educate yourself, you can begin to overcome this fear. For example, learn how to identify the bugs that carry venom and disease, and learn everything you can about insects in general. This will take away much of their mystique. Gently face your fear, perhaps by raising some butterflies or visiting insect exhibits at your local museum.
Public speaking, as previously mentioned, is another very common fear. But once again, the first step is to determine exactly what you fear about public speaking. Is it the prospect of looking foolish? Being judged by others? Unlike some other fears, you actually have full control over this one. Once you figure out exactly what you’re afraid of, you can plan your speech accordingly. For instance, if you are afraid of forgetting your lines, then prepare by rehearsing vigorously or making note cards. If you fear judgment from others, share your speech with trusted friends and relatives before taking the podium. Trusted confidants can offer you valuable feedback and help you to polish your material. Lastly, as with most fears, you can benefit greatly from facing the phobia head on. Practice speaking in front of groups whenever you can, and accept that you are going to make mistakes, especially early on. The more you do it, the easier it will become.
The “face your fears directly” approach is useful for a variety of phobias. Fear of failure is a perfect example. Maybe your parents were never satisfied with anything you accomplished, leaving you with a lasting sense that you will never be good enough. By setting specific goals and working hard to accomplish them, you can reclaim that power.
The actress Whoopi Goldberg once suffered a terrible fear of flying that kept her off of airplanes for 13 years. But when she accepted a job as a talk show host for The View, she decided to face her fear and step aboard commercial planes again. Facing your fears head-on is never easy, but it can yield great rewards.
But what if you cannot identify your core fear? For example, you live in constant fear of losing your job, but you cannot figure out why. Your company is successful and you are a stellar employee. By all accounts, you should have nothing to worry about, and yet the fear remains day after day. When you cannot figure out why a seemingly irrational fear haunts you, it’s time to do a bit of soul searching. Think of events in your life that may be connected to your present fear. Maybe you have been laid off in the past, or maybe you simply remember periods of unemployment during which you struggled to make ends meet. Past events can leave an indelible impression, but sometimes you can overcome fears just by identifying and acknowledging their connection to past events. Remind yourself that your past does not define your future.
Beyond that, a big secret to overcoming fear is actively preventing it from coming to fruition. If you fear losing your job, open a savings account and start putting money away. By taking control of your finances, you can reduce or eliminate the fear of being left helpless by sudden unemployment. This proactive approach can also help you if you have a fear of dying young. By exercising daily, eating healthy foods, avoiding risky behaviors and consulting a physician for all of your necessary checkups, you can restore confidence in your good health and eliminate worries about your mortality.
Sometimes, though, a fear can become an obsession. If you obsess over your health every day but still live in crippling fear of dying young, you have a more serious problem. Any fear can become an obsession. For example, a basic fear of heights is perfectly rational, but if your fear of heights is so strong that it impacts your ability to function, you may need to seek cognitive behavioral therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is useful for all types of crippling fear, as it helps you to rewire your thinking so that the fear no longer dominates your mind.
Besides therapy, support groups can be an invaluable resource for overcoming fears. For example, if you have a fear of social interactions, you can benefit from joining a support group filled with people who share your phobia. Since they all have the same anxieties and understand your situation, you need not endure the same feelings of judgment that you would feel in most social situations, and the group can offer you invaluable encouragement.
Mark Twain once quipped, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Whatever fear may be holding you back, understand that you owe it to yourself to take control and live the life that you deserve. Start mastering your fears today.