How to better cope with your fears

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As children, facing our fears is often a rite of passage. We learned that there were no monsters under the bed and no danger in the basement.

As we age, dealing with our fears can become more complicated. But you don’t always have to overcome your fears – of course we wouldn’t want to lose our fear of a speeding car or other real dangers.

Fear is a fundamental human emotion designed to motivate us to avoid danger, says Seth Gillihan, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Haverford, Pa., And author of The CBT deck for anxiety, rumination and worry.

A physiological arousal occurs – this is called the fight-or-flight response – which gives you energy to move away from the threat.

Physiological changes triggered by fear include a rapid heartbeat, redirection of blood flow from the periphery to the intestine, and muscle tension, as defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) for fear.

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“Fear signals that there is danger and that this is a universal emotion experienced around the world,” says Robin Stern, PhD, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence in New Haven, Connecticut, and co-developer of an approach to emotional learning. program called RULER (recognize, understand, label, express, regulate).

Fear is related but is not synonymous with phobia or anxiety, says Dr. Stern.

With anxiety, it’s not knowing what’s going to happen that triggers the emotional response, she says.

Phobias are also different, says Dr. Gillihan, because they are usually not based on a present danger. APA defines phobias as persistent, irrational fears of a specific situation, object, or activity, such as heights or blood.

According to the APA, scientists agree that genetics and environmental factors such as habits and acquired experiences have a role to play in the development of specific fears and phobias.

A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders evaluated 10 studies of phobias and found evidence of “moderate heritability,” meaning there was some degree of genetic similarities between parents who share a phobia. But the relationship between genes and the environment is complicated. Phobias can also often be attributed to a specific incident – a dog bite resulting in fear of dogs, for example, explains Gillihan.

What is important to know is if and when you want to face your fears, there are steps you can take to do so.

Should we face all fears?

You have to feel ready to make that decision, says Gillihan. If you happen to fear something that you can usually avoid like a giant tarantula, you might not feel a strong urge to face your fear, and that is fine, too. “It’s always a cost-benefit analysis,” he says. The question is, how much does this phobia interfere with your life?

When you’re afraid of something you can’t easily avoid (like a lift), or if avoiding the thing you fear puts you at risk (like an injection at the doctor’s office), there are clear benefits to facing. to this fear.

“It’s always up to the person to decide if they want to face this fear. But be honest with yourself, adds Gillihan: “The fear tends to grow when we avoid things. “

There are other situations where facing a fear may not work to your advantage, Stern says. This could be the case if you have a toxic boss or are in an abusive relationship. Confronting the abuser to try and cope with that fear might hurt you – and might not give you any benefit, she says. In these cases, you will probably benefit the most from avoiding the damage until you can get out of the situation, she says.

6 tips for dealing with the fears you want to overcome

Here are Gillihan and Stern’s tips for dealing with your fears:

1. Stop judging yourself

Judging yourself negatively because you are afraid of something will not help you cope with that fear. Instead, consider practicing reframing the way you look at that fear, Stern says. Rather than thinking fear is good or bad, think of it as information your body is telling you, she explains. Then assess the value of this information and what to do about it.

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2. Slow down and breathe from your stomach

Stern helped develop a method called “meta-moment”. To do this, take a break and take a deep breath, which helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the system in your body that is responsible for rest, sleep, and pleasure, among other things. It is the calm (rather than active) state of the body. When activated, you are more likely to think clearly.

Don’t rush your breathing. Stern says, “If you try to breathe from your upper chest, it won’t be as effective,” compared to slow, deep belly breaths. You can even put your hand on your stomach and watch it go up and down to get it right.

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3. Be an emotion scientist

Another way to reframe fear is to try to be what Stern calls an “emotion scientist.” Listen and be curious about what makes you fear something, rather than shutting it down or ignoring it. Learn where this fear is coming from, Stern says. You might see a new way to cope with these fears, or you might realize that there is less to fear than you think.

4. Practice positive self-talk

“Instead of being impatient, replace that negative inner monologue with a positive inner monologue,” Stern says. Say to yourself, “I have this. I will figure it out. I have been here before and I can do this.

5. Try exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a very effective form of cognitive therapy for treating specific fears and phobias. Patients are gradually and gradually exposed to what they fear over time in a safe place. It’s essential that you feel ready, says Gillihan. “It’s important for our brains to see that it’s us who choose to face what we’re afraid of,” she says.

Research suggests that even a single therapy session lasting four to six hours can be effective, says Gillihan. But if you can’t afford therapy, you can even use self-guided cognitive behavioral therapy books or workbooks, he adds.

6. Medication can help

Medication can be helpful in treating specific fears and phobias, although it is important to discuss these options with your doctor. For example, beta blockers have been prescribed as a treatment for performance anxiety. Benzodiazepines are sometimes prescribed for anxiety disorders, but Gillihan cautions that they are addictive and usually have a sedating effect.

It can be hard to imagine the payoff, but Gillihan says that a real sense of triumph and freedom comes from facing your fears, and it’s worth it. “Once we decide to face what we are afraid of, there is hardly anything that can hold us back,” he says.


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