When I was a kid, I had a lot of anxiety and fear about public speaking. Often before speaking, I would tell myself, “I’m going to mess up!” or “I won’t do a good job” or “What if I forget what I want to say?” As a result of allowing these negative thoughts to swirl in my head, my anxiety would heighten, often resulting in physical symptoms such as shaking, getting red in the face and sweating. As you can imagine, I went to great lengths to avoid public speaking. As a result, speaking in public only got scarier for me.
Fast forward to my adult years, when I decided to challenge my fear. The more I spoke, the better I got, and the more comfortable I became. In fact, now I actually seek out and look forward to opportunities to speak publicly!
Rational vs. Irrational Fear
Fear is a normal and necessary response to physical and emotional danger. If we don’t experience fear, we would not be able to protect ourselves from legitimate threats. Fear triggers an extreme response in our bodies; these responses are adaptive during frightful and traumatic situations. For example, if you are being chased by a lion, it’s only rational that you would run.
Oftentimes fears are rooted in the past, not fully rational and legitimate at present because the risk has long passed. In essence, the brain and body get stuck in the past, unable to discern between rational and irrational threats. As a result of this lingering trauma, people avoid situations that may trigger this latent fear.
Every time we avoid feeling anxious or frightened, we give more power to these emotions. Avoidance leads to increased feelings of fear and ultimately disempowerment. We become less confident in our abilities to overcome fear and the only way to manage is to hide. In fact, as we avoid feared situations, we develop a sense of failure: “I can’t do this! It’s way too scary!” The feeling is contagious, and we lose confidence in our abilities to face challenging situations.
Fear holds many people back from taking safe risks which may be advantageous in the long run. For example, some of my clients share that they can’t attend parties because they worry about people not liking them, or they don’t believe they will fit in, or they fear they will say the “wrong” thing. By not going to the party, they may lose out. I ask my clients, “What if you take a risk by going to the party and you meet a new friend or significant other? What might you miss out on if your fear gets the best of you and you don’t go to the party?”
Challenge Your Fear
The only way to overcome fear is by embracing it, challenging it and facing it head-on. In therapy, I help my clients address and overcome their fears by incorporating Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment which enables individuals to challenge irrational thoughts while gradually exposing them to feared situations. As in my example above, the more I faced my anxiety of public speaking, the more comfortable I became with it, and in fact, the better I got.
7 Steps to Help You Overcome Your Fears
The following are questions to help you identify and challenge your irrational beliefs around feared situations. As a start, you may want to set aside some time, find a quiet spot and bring along a journal to record your thoughts.
1. First, define what you fear. How often do you experience this fear? How much does it impact your life?
2. Investigate where your fear is coming from. Does your fear stem from past experiences or current threats? Is your fear rational or irrational?
3. Challenge irrational fears by asking yourself: What’s the evidence that your thoughts about your fear(s) will come true?
4. If you challenge your fear head on:
- What’s the best outcome?
- What’s the worst outcome?
- What’s the most reasonable outcome?
- What skills do you have to manage emotions in case your thought(s) comes to fruition?
5. Is your fear holding you back from achieving your goals?
6. Imagine what you will gain if you challenge your fears.
7. What would you tell a friend in this situation? Would you tell them to hide under a rock and avoid the situation, or would you tell them to face their fears head on?
Increase Your Exposure to Your Fear
After challenging irrational beliefs around the feared situation(s), the next step is to face these situations head on. For example, if you fear attending social events, it’s important to not avoid them. When you start attending these events, you will feel anxious, but as you consistently expose yourself to them your anxiety and fear will decrease. Every time you confront your fear, it will lose its power over you. In the long run, you will become more resilient, empowered and confident!
Take My Fear Challenge
I welcome you to take my fear challenge. Identify one of your feared situations. Determine whether your fear is based in reality. If it’s not a rational fear, challenge it with the questions above. Then, try gradually exposing yourself to the situation.
My bet is that your fear will lose its power over you, and you may actually welcome these once-feared situations when you consistently expose yourself to them. Let me know how you’re progressing!
As always, please feel free to email me with questions, concerns, or comments. I welcome a visit with you to discuss further! Contact me for an appointment here.
Karen Chinca is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW) located in Brookline, Massachusetts, with over ten years of experience in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for treating individuals and families who are dealing with academic, personal, and professional stress.