Overcoming Fears: 3 Ways Therapy Can Be Helpful

12 Sep ‘22
6 min
Stress and anxiety
Arianna Freni
Gecontroleerd door Psychologist Eva Rüger
overcoming fears
We all fear something to some degree in life. Whether it is losing those we love, failure, rejection, heights, or simply going to the dentist, fear is universal.

 

While often considered a “negative” emotion, fear is actually a natural experience that plays a fundamental role in keeping us safe. However, when fear and anxiety become a pattern in our lives, they can impact our happiness and mental well-being, preventing us from living the way we’d like to.

 

Let’s talk about fear…

 

Anxiety, stress, worry, panic – whichever word you may choose, most often we are referring to the same basic emotion. Like all other immediate responses, fear provides us with information. It is a way to signal a potential threat to our physical or emotional safety; as such, it is a normal biological reaction present in every living being.

 

Even though fear and anxiety can be distressing, they usually pass when the underlying trigger is gone. In some circumstances, however, fears can have a major influence on our being and take over our lives. This can affect our ability to take care of ourselves properly by disrupting our sleep, concentration, and overall well-being. Living with fear can also hold us back from doing things we want or need to do, and distance us from ordinary situations that might make us feel uncomfortable.

 

👉 Also interesting: Why Negative Thoughts and Feelings Are Important Too

 

The cycle of fear can be challenging to break, but the good news is that there are lots of ways to help manage your fears and lots of places to find support. In fact, what matters most is not making fears disappear, but rather learning to deal with them so that they won’t stop you from living the life you aspire to.

 

“Just like fear signals a potential threat to us, its function is to keep us safe”, explains psychologist Eva Rüger. “To avoid reaching out to a person to protect us from feeling rejected, to not speak up in order to prevent us from potentially feeling excluded. When we understand our fear and learn to interpret it, we can look at it differently and it loses the power to hold us back from stepping outside our comfort zone.”

 

The effects of fear

 

Many things make us feel afraid. Some fears are rational and primal, caused by imminent dangers or innate responses to certain stimuli (e.g., loud unexpected noises), others are irrational and can vary greatly from person to person. The effects of fear can be very powerful on both our minds and bodies. Regardless of whether the threat is perceived or real, you can experience three types of symptoms:

 

  •   Intrusive thoughts, such as thinking that something bad will happen;

 

  •   Physical symptoms that reflect your body’s response, such as a faster heartbeat and irregular breathing;

 

  •   Changes in your day-to-day behaviour, such as avoiding social activities or events.
A dip into our brain

Although fear originates from our mind, it triggers a powerful physical reaction in our body. As soon as we experience fear, the amygdala (an almond-shaped region of your brain dedicated to detecting emotional stimuli) gets activated and sends excitatory signals to other brain areas. 

 

The nervous system becomes more alert and we experience physical changes that prepare us for danger, such as dilation of the pupils, faster breathing, sweating, and higher heart rate and blood pressure.

 

Meanwhile, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat and its context to understand whether the danger is real. It’s fight or flight time! 

Facing > avoiding

 

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

  • President Franklin Roosevelt

 

When fearing something, our natural tendency is to avoid it. We are tricked to think that if we avoid that public speech, that doctor appointment or that social confrontation we will be safer and quieter in our comfort zone. Truth is, in most cases, fears lead to limitations and smaller lives, as the more you avoid something, the scarier it becomes. 

 

Let me give you a practical example: if your bike starts making a weird creaky sound, do you ignore it, at the risk of stumbling and hurting yourself the more you go on? Of course not. You call a mechanic or try to fix it yourself. When fear becomes debilitating, causes harm to your physical and mental health and affects your daily life, you shouldn’t avoid it.

 

Confronting your fears

 

On a biological level, to overcome a fear you need to gradually teach your amygdala that you are able to handle it, which in simple words means allowing your brain to become ‘habituated’ to that sensation. While avoidance prevents your nervous system from habituating, awareness brings a sense of achievement and empowerment.  

 

On the psychological level, whenever you confront your fear, you build confidence while your anxiety loses strength and you gradually become more resilient. Most importantly, if you experience persistent or debilitating fear, it may help to meet with a therapist or other mental health professional who can support you with addressing these challenges and provide you with the tools to counter them.

 

The first step to confront your fear is to acknowledge what it is telling you when it comes up”, points out Eva. “What is your fear telling you about the situation, about yourself, about the future? Once you have the answer to these questions, you can start understanding where these beliefs and expectations come from and question them. Is this thought helping me to grow, learn, and live the life I want? Or is it standing in the way? Is it true (e.g. that people will think badly of me when I say this)?”

 

How can therapy help in overcoming fears?

 

Therapy helps you process the feelings of fear that affect your life and discover the underlying causes as well as the most appropriate way to work through them.

Talking to a psychologist can support you in managing fear by helping you:

 

1. Express your fears

 

Therapy allows you to share your feelings and sensations in a safe environment in which you can discuss any fear you’ve ignored in the past. Consider some questions before meeting with your therapists such as “what am I afraid of?”, “Is this fear realistic?”, “What is preventing me from stepping out of my comfort zone and achieving my goals?”

 

Acknowledging and expressing these fears is the first step toward controlling them. Therapists can help you address these thoughts and guide you through the possible solutions.

 

2. Explore your fears

 

Once you have identified your fears, working with a psychologist can help you dive into them and explore the underlying processes behind your responses. You can determine when and where these fears originated and navigate through what lays at their roots.

 

Insecurity? Sense of loss? Need for control? Where can these reactions be traced back to and what can you do to shift from these outcomes? Therapy will help you answer these questions, and, even more importantly, learn more about yourself.

 

3. Overcome your fears

 

Communicating and breaking down your fears lets you gain confidence, which in turn, encourages you to face them and overcome them. The role of therapy here is to provide guidance and solutions to make significant changes. It can be hard to face your fears and actively work on them, but the effort put to grow, change and improve always pays off over time.

 

“It can be challenging to confront your fears and it takes courage. Therapy can give you a safe space to take the first steps in learning about your fears and overcoming them”, says Eva. 

 

Stay brave

 

If you are struggling with your thoughts at this moment, remember: fear doesn’t have to control your life. Make the conscious decision to look at what makes you afraid and act on it, instead of simply reacting to its effects.

 

We are made to evolve,  so embrace your inner strength and value each experience as a tool to help you grow – even and especially the most frightful ones.