Many people enjoy the thrill of suspense, but most people don't enjoy feeling truly petrified and out of control, or appearing that way to others. Hence, fear is often our own dirty little secret. But let’s face it: everyone is afraid of something.
Whether it's a fear of heights, public speaking, social gatherings, or going to the dentist, fear is a real emotion. It's a healthy one, too: it's deployed by your brain to defend your life and limb.
But fear can also be debilitating and prevent you from living life to its fullest, both personally and professionally. But—uh, have no fear—I have some tips to help you cope with and overcome situations that make you afraid, and regain control of your life.
1. Reality test
Fear is a natural, adaptive, and healthy response to perceived risk, but it can also cause irrational feelings of being incompetent or under qualified to be successful in a new career or role. At its worst, fear can cause paralysis.
To overcome feelings of inadequacy, create a list of past accomplishments and qualifications that disprove them. Bringing this additional perspective to the situation can help to nullify the “impostor syndrome” that many people are plagued by.
2. Weigh pros and cons
Paralyzing fear often results from the human brain’s tendency to focus more on possible undesirable outcomes and less on possible favorable ones. Therefore, it can be helpful to deliberately call to mind the potential benefits of your feared action or situation.
This exercise can be as simple as creating a list of pros and cons, so that your brain has a concrete, visual reference point for the balancing of the scales, and can settle down a bit. Then you’ll be better able to assess rationally if the risk outweighs the benefits you might enjoy by facing your fear.
3. Create a support system
It can’t hurt to have cheerleaders in your life: positive people who can encourage you to face a fear and push through it. Having people with whom you can discuss your concerns will allow you to get a different perspective on your problem. Knowing that those people will still be there even if things don’t go your way can provide the boost of confidence you need to get out and explore new territory, and increase your likelihood of success. If you don’t have people like this in your life right now, it’s worth the effort to find some.
4. Build your tolerance
Gradually exposing yourself to the thing or situation you’re afraid of can help you extinguish your fear a little at a time. Start with just imagining the feared situation. Practice often, until you’re not activated by it as much, if at all. Then try observing other people in the same situation from a distance.
Finally, work your way up to actually engaging in the activity. Even then, start small. If public speaking frightens you, start by practicing raising your hand and asking a question when someone else is speaking.
5. Envision success
Either by itself or in connection with the previous exercise, visualizing yourself overcoming your feared situation, and being successful, can work wonders.
Pro athletes do this all the time: basketball players imagining shooting perfect free throws has a measurable effect on basketball players’ success on the court.
Practice imagining, as vividly as you can, yourself not just in the situation, but mastering it. Then give it another shot in real life and see if your relationship to it has shifted.
Fearful situations won’t just disappear from your life overnight. Coping with fear is a process. Continue to take small steps and build on each bit of improvement. Some fears may never completely go away, but with some wisely-directed effort, there’s no reason why you need to be incapacitated by them.