Whether you're terrified of heights or the thought of public speaking, when you feel afraid of something, your natural tendency is to avoid it. But the more you avoid something, the scarier it becomes.
Of course, a little anxiety is a good thing. It keeps you safe. If you didn't have any fear, you wouldn't look both ways before you crossed the road.
But sometimes, our fears are irrational and exaggerated. And those fears can hold you back professionally and personally.
Exposure is the key to overcoming fear
The "ripping the Band-Aid off fast" approach doesn't usually work with conquering phobias or big fears. While some therapists do use a technique called flooding to help people face a fear all it once, it should be done only in a therapeutic environment. If you're conquering fear on your own, the best mindset is "slow and steady wins the race."
Exposure is the best way to conquer fear. But that exposure needs to be gradual. Doing too much too fast will cause a huge spike in your anxiety that will cause your fear to grow.
When done correctly, exposure therapy requires you to tolerate a little fear every day. After a few days of practicing, your fear will decrease and it's time to step it up a notch. With each step you take, you'll build a little more mental strength.
How to face your fears one step at a time
Whether you're afraid of snakes or public speaking, here's how to take an incremental approach to conquering your fear:
- Imagine a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being no fear at all and 10 being the thing that terrifies you most.
- Identify what would make your anxiety a mild to moderate level--about a 4. That may be reading a speech in front of one person or looking at pictures of snakes online.
- Then, practice that step repeatedly until your anxiety starts to subside. It may take three days or it may take 30, but eventually your anxiety will decrease.
- Then, step it up a notch and do something slightly more anxiety-provoking, like giving a speech in front of three people or stepping into a pet store that sells snakes. Once your anxiety subsides, identify another step you can take toward your biggest fear.
- With each small step, you should be getting closer to conquering your fear. By the time you get there, you should feel uncomfortable, but you shouldn't experience sheer terror. With practice, you can eventually conquer your fear altogether.
Practice imaginable exposure when necessary
It's impossible to face some fears in an incremental manner. If you're terrified of flying, you can't take practice taking off in an airplane unless you're prepared to take the whole flight.
In those cases, imaginable exposure can be helpful. Picture yourself doing the thing that scares you to induce anxiety.
Imagine the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes you might experience if you were really doing the thing that terrifies you. Visualize yourself facing your fears with confidence.
When practiced on a regular basis, imaginable exposure can equip you to face your fears in-person.
Seek professional support
Anxiety and phobias are very treatable. But, it can be hard to face your fears on your own.
If your fears interfere with your ability to reach your goals, seek professional help. Usually, it takes fewer than 10 therapy sessions to treat anxiety.