How to Deal with Fear

"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” - Marie Curie.

A dark, empty street in an otherwise bustling city. A conference room of people waiting for a presentation. An airplane, ready to board. These images can invoke a fear response in people physically and mentally. But what do we do with fear, whether from a perceived threat or feeling scared for no reason? How we deal with fear is as important as how we deal with any other emotion.

Frequently, we don't know what to do with a problem facing us, whether it's a worry about a job, marriage, a child, etc. Before we face our fears, we need to understand what fear is and how it can positively influence our lives. Then we can learn fear management techniques to cope with fear. Mental health professionals can guide you through understanding and identifying fears and provide us with a mental toolbox to deal with fear in a productive, healthy way.

What Is Fear?

Fear is a powerful, primal, and natural emotion brought on in the face of or expectation of danger. Fear is very real, whether we are in actual danger or not. Once we start to be afraid, a biochemical reaction occurs in our bodies. Adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) are released to aid in “fight, freeze, or flight” actions. Our heart rate and breathing elevate. Our cerebral cortex, the area of the brain responsible for logic and reason, has trouble making good decisions. At its most primitive, fear is a positive emotion responsible for keeping us safe. But what happens when that fear response is projected onto a more benign stimulus uncontrollably? What if you have fear without reason? Primal fear is helpful in life-or-death situations, but it can be destructive if the problem isn’t dire. If the effects of fear aren’t favorable (like saving your life) and become a negative emotion that interferes with your life, a therapist can help you manage these destructive reactions.

How To Cope with Fear

Fortunately, managing or getting over fear is possible. Through therapy, we learn how to deal with fear using coping technique tools that we can use to manage fear in all its forms. A trained mental health professional will guide you through these steps and provide strategies you can use in your everyday life.

Step 1: Acknowledge That You Are Afraid

The first step to managing fear is to be aware you are feeling it. Being conscious of your feelings requires monitoring and mindfulness. Check in with yourself, and you may discover situations in your life that make your heart race or make your stomach feel tight. You may feel foggy or unfocused. Maybe everything feels surreal. Rapid or obsessive thoughts may run through your mind. Feelings of dread and panic may accompany these physiological symptoms. By being mindful of your physical and mental states, you can realize you are experiencing fear in the form of worry or anxiety about concepts and stimuli you didn’t know triggered you. You may discover you have been subconsciously avoiding situations because you felt a spark of fear.

            You walk past a conference room and see a colleague standing in front of people sitting around a table giving a presentation. You are mindful that you started walking faster and turned your head away from the glass walls of the conference room. You notice you are breathing a bit heavier, and a jumble of distracting thoughts is running through your mind. You realize you are having a fear response, though you never noticed it before.

Step 2: Identify Your Fear

Now that you know you have a fear response, you can identify the problem. Naming your fear gives you power. Fear works because it whispers at us in ways we don’t recognize. When you name it and examine it from different perspectives, you’re better able to determine its flaws and see its weaknesses. When we look at what scares us from multiple perspectives, the actual trigger comes into focus, and we will know how to deal with fear.

            You pause after you pass the conference room. You acknowledged your fear reaction and are unsure why you felt that way. What scared you? Upon reflection, you realize you got anxious seeing your coworker giving a presentation, and the subconscious thought of you giving a presentation sparked a physiological response. You can now name your fear: public speaking.

Step 3: Say It Out Loud

Avoiding conflict and fear of disappointing others is often central to our convictions and results in high distress. It's startling to realize how many people will keep the scary stuff to themselves because they do not want to burden a loved one or feel embarrassed to have this fear or problem. Remember, fear or constantly feeling anxious is very common and nothing to be ashamed about. Find a way to express your fear safely. Say it out loud. Tell a loved one or trusted individual like a health professional or clergy. Selective self-disclosure to people we trust reduces our emotional pressure. 

            You've spotted your fear response anytime you see someone speaking in front of a crowd, or even if you think about public speaking. You've learned that you are terrified of public speaking and have talked to your friend about it. Your friend helps you see a different perspective of your fear, and you find that your friend has some anxiety about public speaking. New perspectives help you realize this anxiety interferes with your career and spills over into your everyday life.

Step 4: Gather Your Tools

Just naming the worry and telling someone you trust doesn't solve the problem, but it is crucial to deal with fear. To effectively manage fear, anxiety, and worry, we need to learn strategies - mental tools for our mental health toolbox. Therapists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals have specific training in handling fear.

Medication may be prescribed to help the physiological effects of fear and anxiety. However, medications alone won't eliminate anxiety and other fear-related conditions because medication doesn't address the root of the problem. Medication is an important tool in managing anxiety, but it doesn’t identify what triggers our fear and doesn’t allow us to learn problem-solving and distress tolerance skills. Therapy is needed to overcome fear and anxiety.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which includes Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is the basis for a variety of more specialized techniques used to deal with fear. At its core, it helps us understand the connection between our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and learn how to alter those to affect positive change. Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) is used to help obsessive-compulsive behaviors that have become a part of an anxiety disorder.

Other techniques involve coping strategies that help divert your thoughts to something more positive. When we have a lot of fear, we want to engage in thoughts, behaviors, or actions opposite of fear. Coping strategies can include keeping a journal and rating each fear for how much it's impacting you at the moment. When you're feeling fear, try engaging in activities that help focus your mind away from the fear, like reading, drawing, calling a friend you love, or thinking about the sensations that make you feel more comfortable, like taking a warm shower or snuggling under a blanket.

Therapists also teach grounding techniques—tools used when we feel fear and the physical or mental effects of that fear, anxiety, or panic. Some techniques involve meditations, mantras, breathing exercises, or mindful refocusing using your senses. You can use these tools every time you need them for the whole of your life, whether you are experiencing a panic attack or are just nervous about a job interview.

            You’ve been seeing a psychologist for your fear of public speaking. In therapy, you discover other areas of your life affected by anxiety. You discover your triggers and how they may have started. Your therapist teaches you coping and grounding techniques, and through cognitive-behavior therapy, you feel in control of your fear. When you pass by the conference room later, you notice a person giving a speech. You also notice the beginning feelings of anxiety. This time, you know what to do - you engage in opposite behaviors and do some grounding exercises like box-breathing. Your anxiety decreases to a manageable level, and your life is yours again. 

In general, understand that fear is a healthy part of human existence. When it’s persistent and causes significant distress to daily functioning, seek help. Therapy helps turn off that alarm system that is constantly buzzing. Goodman Psychologist Associates has therapists trained to deal with all types of fear, anxiety, and worry both in-person and virtually. Our caring staff can find the right therapist for you, assist with scheduling, and help you escape feeling helpless, trapped, and terrified. Contact us today.

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