How to Handle Fears
Everyone has times when they're afraid of something. Fear has a legitimate function for us because it alerts us to something which could possibly be harmful to us. Usually, we are able to evaluate the situation and see if there is any real danger, then take steps to deal with it. Sometimes, however, our fear gets in our way and interferes with our daily living. This is often frustrating because we think of our fear as unrealistic but are still hampered by it. Consider the following strategies for overcoming these "unrealistic" fears.
The first step in handling your fears is to determine exactly what you're afraid of. It's very important that you are very specific about what you're frightened of. For example, to say, "I'm afraid of people." would not be enough. What kinds of people frighten you? Male? Female? People you don't like? People you like? You might also ask yourself questions like: "In what kinds of situations am I afraid of people?" Is it when you are with a large group, or a smaller, more intimate one?
Being clear about exactly what frightens you is necessary for two reasons: first, it will enable you to go ahead and do the things that don't actually bother you, but that you've been avoiding. Because you have over-generalized and included all the activities connected to the situation which is fearful with the actual thing you fear, you have probably deprived yourself of the pleasure of those activities. Second, it will allow you to focus your energy on solving the real problem and not just some small aspect of it. When trying to get clear about what you fear, it's often helpful to ask yourself: "what am I really afraid of?" So, for example, if you think you're afraid of women, ask yourself; "What is it about women that frightens me? Am I afraid of something they might do or say? If so, what is it?" Once you've become very specific about exactly what scares you, it is easier to begin talking with someone else, perhaps a close friend, about the fear. Being able to tell someone about it often helps the feared situation become less fearful.
The second step in dealing with our fears is to become aware of what you're saying to yourself that scares you so much. Most of us don't realize it, but in a very real sense we talk to ourselves a great deal. Much of this talk is silent and it can be one of the ways we make ourselves afraid. So, for example, if you're afraid that you're going to fail a test, what are you saying to yourself about it? Are you saying that, if you fail, your whole academic career is ruined? Are you predicting that your parents are going to get very angry? Be aware of what you are saying to yourself. If you are focused on how awful it will be to fail the test, you are already starting to scare yourself and that will interfere with your actual performance. Almost always when we're afraid of something we're talking to ourselves and telling ourselves that something bad is going to happen. Unconsciously, we are forcing our minds and bodies into a stress mode preparing to meet the imagined disaster. To reduce the fear, say something positive to yourself, something like, "failing is no fun, but the world certainly won't end," or, "my grade on this test has nothing to do with my value as a person, so I'll prepare as well as I can and see how well I can do."
The next step in handling our fears is to exaggerate the bad things that you are afraid are going to happen. Although you probably haven't said it, it's these exaggerated bad effects that you fear. So, for example, if you know you'd like to call someone you'd like to get to know better, socially, but are afraid to pick up the phone to do so, you might exaggerate possible outcomes and say to yourself, "If I call, I'm going to be laughed at or rejected and I'm going to be depressed for three months. Everyone will know I'm a loser and will treat me like I'm nothing." In fact, it can be a lot of fun trying to think up the most dire consequences imaginable. You can really get creative if you try. After catastrophizing for a few minutes, you'll probably begin to realize that the world couldn't possibly be as bad as your imagination can make it. The world won't end if you go ahead and make that call and it doesn't work out just the way you'd want it to--AND--it is possible that the outcome could be even better than you're hoping. You can't find out until you make the call.
Step four involves your using your imagination in a more positive way for dealing with your fear. First, relax in the following way: Take a deep breath while at the same time tensing your muscles. Then slowly let out the breath and at the same time let the tension in your body go. Do this several times, allowing yourself to relax more and more each time. After you are relaxed, imagine yourself approaching the feared situation. Once you're able to imagine it well, imagine yourself coming close to the condition or situation you fear. Visualize yourself being a little afraid, but still going ahead and engaging in the feared behavior and coping with it. It's important to get a mental picture and a feeling of what it's like to deal with the situation in a successful way even while you are still feeling a little fearful. So, for example, if you're afraid to ask a store clerk for your money back on an item, try to picture yourself asking for the refund even though you're still a little afraid. Try to get a good picture of this. Imagine yourself in the situation without all those terribly unpleasant consequences you've been scaring yourself with. Another way to approach this is to imaging that you have already dealt with the situation in a successful way and review how you have done it. You might be pleasantly surprised by how creative you had been at dealing with the situation. As you enjoy the feeling of mastery that comes with having dealt successfully with the situation that has made you fearful, you will become more confident and less fearful. After you have done these exercises several times and begin to feel an easing of your fear you're ready for the last step.
In this last step, you will need to actually approach the thing, person, or situation head on. This doesn't mean you have to change your entire behavior in one dramatic step. You can break the behavior down into a number of increasingly difficult steps if you want. For example, if you are afraid to give your opinion in class, you might begin by asking the professor a question after class. After doing this a couple of times, you could ask a question in class. Continue the process by giving your opinion after class. Finally, you would work up to giving your opinion during class. A similar technique would be to vary the amount of time you spend engaging in the feared behavior. If you're afraid to talk to members of the opposite sex, begin by saying "hi" then go on to ask one a question, and from there perhaps begin to share your own interests or feelings.
As you're learning to deal with your fear, continue to be aware of your self-talk and continue to be aware of the exaggerations you're using to scare yourself. The process of gradually exposing yourself to the feared situation will require some time and commitment on your part. Often a good way to begin is to write down a list of 8 or 10 things (or "steps") which lead up to the thing you most fear. Each step involves a little more anxiety to perform as you approach the final goal. Use your relaxation exercise and positive imagery on each step. Don't continue to the next step until you can feel yourself relaxed and calm on the current step. Before taking each step, take a deep breath and alternatively tense and loosen your muscles. Continue doing this until you can feel relaxed and calm while imagining being in the fearful situation. By gradually working up to the most feared situation, you give yourself practice in not being terribly afraid even though you are still dealing with some fear. You will discover that all of those awful things you were sure would happen are not inevitable and that there can be pleasant surprises and rewarding outcomes.
Review And Summary:
Before we review the five steps above, please be aware of two common myths. First, it is a myth in most cases that you can stop being afraid by making a conscious choice. It takes a lot of thinking and work to change old ways of reacting to situations. Second, it is a myth that you should stop being afraid before you act. In most cases, you must act with at least a little fear--or even substantial fear--before the fear will go away.
Now let's review the five steps.
Remember that you could be using any or all of these steps at one time if necessary.
- Get clear in your mind what it is that you're afraid of. Ask questions like, "What about that scares me?"
- Become aware of your self-talk. What are you saying to yourself that scares you?
- Exaggerate the bad consequences you fear. Begin to recognize that you were probably already exaggerating and didn't know it and that what you feared is indeed and exaggeration already.
- Visualize yourself still being afraid, but handling the situation in an acceptable manner.
- Gradually expose yourself to the feared situation by doing things that more and more closely approximate what you fear.
As a final note, it is often helpful to talk to a close friend about your fears. It's amazing how a fear can sometimes disappear after a conversation with someone you trust. If you have some concerns about your fears and want to talk to someone other than a friend, acquaintance or family member, you can contact someone at the CWC for an appointment.
Note: This document is based on an audio tape developed by the University of Texas, Austin. With their permission, it was revised and edited into its current for my the staff of the University of Florida Counseling Center.