Craig Metz, M.S.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Part I of this piece on fear (click here to read it) ended with the conclusion that one of the best ways to conquer fear is to address it head on. Most of us already know this, but it is not always so easy. Remember, every fear you conquer means a larger life for you with greater possibilities. It is worth the effort to move past difficult fears. Here is a list of suggestions that might make it more likely that you will take on the task of confronting your fears and that you will conquer them when you do:

1) Confront your fears when they are small.

The neural pathways in our brain become stronger the more they are used. Old habits and old fears are much harder to change than new ones. It is like with weeds in the garden; little sprouts take almost no effort to pull out, whereas full-grown weeds can take a lot of effort to completely remove, roots and all. Cultivate a habit of confronting fears as you notice them.

2) Avoiding Fear is Just a Bad Habit.

Many of us habitually avoid fears because they are uncomfortable (or terrifying). This sets us up, paradoxically, to have the fear for a long time. Changing old habits may not be easy, but all of us have done it many times in our lives and this one can change too. Changing habits is a large subject area, but in short: practice makes perfect. Whatever we do a great deal of becomes a habit. Usually, any new behavior is hard. We begin by practicing the new behavior, then we forget to practice it, then we forget that we forgot, then we remember and begin again to practice the new behavior. We typically go through this cycle a number of times until eventually we have practiced the new behavior enough that we just do it without thinking about it.

3) Courage is a choice.

We often think that courage is something that just comes to you or that you are born with, but it is really a choice we make. The choice is choosing something we value over the discomfort of the fear. The mother that runs into a burning building might not be aware that she is choosing the possibility of saving the life of her child over her own fear of death, but she is. While perhaps in less extreme forms, we can and do make these kind of decisions consciously all of the time. It may not be easy and it is sometimes like “walking through the fire,” but we can do it if we are motivated enough.

4) Focus on Purpose

We can put ourselves through anything if we are inspired enough. Think of all of the martyrs of political causes (or of the mother running into the burning building). The real purpose, for example, of asking that special someone out to dinner might really be to create the life you have always wanted to live. Walking through our fears can be difficult, but focusing on why you are really doing it can give you the strength to do it anyway.

5) You Can Choose Not to Panic.

We can experience intense fear and yet not panic. You have done it. Panicking is when we give in to fear and try to escape from our purpose. Sometimes we are overwhelmed and we cannot help but panic and we should be kind and forgiving to ourselves when that happens. In truth, though, we can tolerate a great deal more discomfort than what we might give ourselves credit for. If we commit ourselves to holding the fear and not giving into panic, we can often pull it off.

6) Courage Begets Courage.

When you have successfully challenged one fear it is easier to challenge others. Start small with something you can handle and work your way up to bigger (and probably older) fears. Also, if your first attempt (or attempts) are unsuccessful, do not give up because your ultimate success will mean more than just this one fear you conquer, it means you can move on to other fears. Every single one of your fears is conquerable, you just may not have found the way to do it yet. Sometimes it takes the better part of a lifetime to get through a difficult fear, so while you might make “tactical retreats,” do not ever give up.

7) Work With Others

The reason police officers mostly patrol alone instead of in pairs as they used to is that police working in pair are much less fearful (and therefore much less likely to heed necessary cautions) than when working alone. Working with others can powerfully disinhibit fears, so be careful with this one, but if you can gather social support to help conquer a fear, by all means do so. Even the simple act of letting others know of your intention to do something can provide a great deal of motivation to actually follow through.

8) Is the Fear Rational?

It matters if the fear is solidly based in reality or not. Many fears are not, at least not entirely. There is a whole branch of psychology devoted to cognitive distortions, so a lot could be said here, but we, unlike other animals, can talk ourselves down from fear if we can focus on what is real. Some areas to look at include: How likely is it that what we fear will really happen? Are we only focused on the negative possibilities? Are we looking at things in a black and white way and not seeing the shades of gray? Other people can often bring in a needed perspective. Maybe past experiences are coloring how we see things, so spend time with this.

9) Overwhelming Fear Might be the Result of Past Trauma.

There are some experiences that are so powerful that they, like a deep scratch in a record that the needle keeps getting stuck in, keep re-stimulating us even when current circumstances no longer warrant such a large reaction. While everything in this article is relevant to trauma, it might be useful to seek some extra support when your fear is trauma based. Connecting with supportive others is key, especially those who have had similarly traumatic experiences. There is good therapy available for trauma as well. The experiences of the trauma will always be with you, but the overwhelmingness can be reduced or eliminated.

10) Remember, If You Stick With It and Stay Present, the Fear Will Change.

This is the paradox: the more we avoid our fears (and other feelings), the more we get stuck in them. But when we face them head on, our fear will change. This is part of the basis of a mindfulness meditation practice. Doing the things we fear but want to do is great, but even if the only thing you do is sit with your fear in an unflinching manner, it will change eventually, probably in less than an hour (which is a very short time considering how long you may have had the fear). If you practice being kind to yourself as you take steps (however small) towards your fear while staying aware of your feelings, your fear will transform.