Fear isn’t just something that stops you from skydiving or petting a dog. Fear hinders the pursuit of your dreams, robs you of peace of mind, and can even affect your overall mental and physical health.
“Sometimes fear is warranted and is a warning sign not to proceed and to protect yourself. Oftentimes, it is the creation of your mind,” says Mariel Diaz, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker.
When fear is prolonged and unwarranted, consider it enemy No. 1. Fortunately, you have everything within you to battle it head-on.
Reframe your thoughts
When you’re experiencing extreme fear, it’s likely that you’re thinking about the situation in a way that only amplifies the fear, says Diaz.
“By learning how to catch and check your thoughts, you can identify the situation causing the fear and the negative thought, then weigh out the evidence for and against the thought.”
This shifts your emotional state and prompts you to think with a clearer head.
Know you can get through the worst
“We have to recognize that pain and discomfort and tragedy will not destroy us,” says Dr. Brad Reedy, owner and clinical director of Evoke Therapy Programs. Realizing that you can make it through a tough situation will suck the power out of your negative thoughts and fears.
Take a deep breath
“Another way to combat fear is by taking a timeout from the situation and practicing deep breathing,” advises Diaz.
She recommends what’s called “square breathing.” For this, inhale to the count of four, pause for four, exhale for four, and then pause for another four. Repeat 10 times. This turns on your relaxation response, she explains, and will calm your mind before, during, and after you do anything that causes you fear.
Connect your fear with something positive
Maybe you’re fearful of asking for a promotion or a raise, or you’re worried about taking a 12-hour flight across the world. Instead of thinking about the what-ifs, focus on the positive outcomes. A salary bump and life-changing adventure are worth the risk.
Then when you finally do get that promotion, or are busy snapping pictures in Africa or Paris or Thailand, make a mental note of how positive that leap actually was.
“Most people fear change, loss of control, and feeling pain. The results of these fears are behaviors that seek to prevent change or loss of control or uncomfortable feelings,” says Reedy. Instead of being afraid of losing control, let up on the reigns and see how empowering it is.
Challenge your fear head on
Many of our fears are actually cognitive distortions: In other words, they’re not real threats, even though they may feel that way.
“Some fears can be eradicated through exposure therapies,” Reedy says. “That is, with support, the client can increasingly expose themselves to the feared stimulus and reduce their fear response.”
Over time, you learn that the threat isn’t real and it becomes reduced or eradicated. This often requires the assistance of an expert who can walk you through the exposure.
Meditating, or practicing deliberate mindfulness in our everyday lives, helps us better understand ourselves and our emotions.
Says Reedy, “Learning how to feel and learning how to move through feelings rather than trying to escape them helps us realize that painful emotions are not a threat to our safety.”
Purposefully leave your comfort zone
“Many of our fears are born from pushing out of our comfort zones,” says Diaz. “If you want to grow as a person, it is important to push out of your comfort zone. Every time you do, you’ll likely experience fear.”
Instead of letting that fear create a boundary around you, acknowledge that it’s a normal response and channel it into motivation.
Re-frame past relationships
“Fear of rejection or failure can be more deeply rooted in poor attachment in childhood,” says Reedy. “Re-experiencing [or reframing] a relationship where one’s whole self is accepted can help you realize that social rejection or failing at a job do not mean anything about you, but rather indicate something about the other person.”
Consult a therapist
It’s OK to get help from an expert: “I recommend working with a therapist to get personalized guidance on how to overcome your fears,” says Diaz. “A therapist will help you understand exactly where your fears are coming from, will support you as you learn how to challenge your thoughts, and will help you to overcome your fears so you can be your best in every area of your life.”