2016-01-23

Practice feeling afraid

You approach the podium. Your palms are sweaty. The audience is silent except for a few quiet coughs. Your mouth is dry. Do you remember what you are going to say? Will the words even form coherently? You swallow hard, briefly close your eyes, but when you open them again you're at home. You breath a sigh of relief, remembering that your presentation isn't for another three weeks. That exercise was effective though. Repeated exposure to associated stimuli is a common method for helping individuals address and overcome both minor fears and major trauma1. The usefulness and accessibility of exposure goes beyond professional therapy and can be brought into your daily life.


Image source: Clipping of a movie poster of "The Fly" (1986) [IMDB], the film from which the pictured quote became famous.

"Be afraid. Be very afraid."
That phrase become well-known thanks to the 1986 film "The Fly". In it, when faced with a frightening situation, one character attempts to reassure while another states, in a matter-of-fact way, that one should be afraid and not pretend away from it. A similar embracing approach to fear is what I read in the short book "The Flinch". I have invited readers on many occasions to embrace fear and welcome the challenges of life. Taking it a step further, I invite you to make experiencing fear a familiar occurrence.

I'm certainly not encouraging you to go out and place yourself in dangerous and life-threatening situations. What I am saying is that you can incorporate the thought exercises and a safe implementation exposure therapy into your experiences with fear. (Beyond the minor common and/or irrational fears, I highly advise the inclusion of a mental health professional.)

I laid out a common fear in my opening, the fear of public speaking. Utilizing a similar thought exercise might enable you to feel less fear when facing the actual situation of public speaking. I don't just mean "practice your speech". I mean imagine the fear and anxiety of going through the scenario, even messing the scenario up. Take yourself through a worst case scenario and then mentally work through how you would handle it and why it's not worth the worst of your fear response. If you're afraid of spiders, learn about them and begin to understand how unlikely it is that they are a danger to you. If you're afraid of heights, sit comfortably on your couch and slowly look through images of high places.

Do these activities daily. Make it routine. You'll feel uncomfortable, you'll feel anxious. You'll react as if you're experiencing the real scenario. Meanwhile, inside your mind, the fear itself is diminishing. What was once a flutter of panic that lit up your amygdala and triggered your fight-or-flight response has now become familiar.

Be afraid, be very afraid, until your mind has learned to recognize and process that feeling as easily as hunger. Fear is manageable and accessible. After all, even if the scenario is often real, the way you think and respond to it is all in your head.


1 For more information about exposure therapy, I suggest starting with this article from the US Department of Veteran Affairs [ptsd.va.gov].
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