Have you ever tried facing a fear you have and found it incredibly difficult? Maybe your fear of spiders causes you to jump away at the mere sight of one. It’s hard to imagine that you can even be in the same room as that thing. It’s much easier to kill it or maybe have someone else deal with it than to lose sight of it and have to live with the idea that it’s still there. Then you star to wish you weren’t so afraid of spiders.
In this blog post I will explain to you why actually facing that fear is a better way to overcome the it than running away and trying to avoid it.
Why would I want to face my fear?
The brain processes anything you think is threatening, whether the threat is real or just an idea, into the same fear response. Fear is a very primal emotion of survival, and it comes from the most primal area of the brain. When you’re faced with a threat, it is not the time to think or analyze or judge what’s happening. Fear kicks in, because it is your brain’s way of helping you survive the threat. It shuts down what is called “higher-order thinking” (the kind of thinking you need to do math for example) and activates the body to help you run away or fight the threat.
Notice that I said that the brain does this process for EVERY threat it perceives. That means that it does that if a snake sneaks up on you, and it does that if you’re about to have a difficult conversation with your boss. It doesn’t discriminate between them, because it just wants to help you survive. As you can definitely tell, running away from the conversation with your boss, or fighting your boss, aren’t good ways of handling the situation.
This is where it is good to learn to face your fear: you will eventually have to. Where you could have run away from the snake, you are going to have to face that difficult conversation with your boss. You will also have to do it and try to remain calm and maybe think of solutions. You will have to fight the primal instinct to fight or run, and try to reactivate higher-order thinking when your brain is trying to suppress it. It really is as hard as it sounds, and we’ve all been there.
How am I supposed to do it?
Well, the thing about facing your fears is that it is difficult, but it gets easier and easier the more you practice it. The key to facing fear is to build up a lack of sensitivity to the fear. You are essentially desensitizing yourself from the fear caused by a certain trigger, so that the fear isn’t overwhelming enough that you can’t think. The cool thing about it is that you don’t have to necessarily practice with just one trigger. Learning to face your fears is a generalizable skill.
Desensitization works in the following way. First, being able to be in the presence of your object of fear and learning to relax is key. You do that by gradually exposing yourself to the object of fear, and then breathing deeply to try to calm yourself down. The point is to fight the urge to run or fight it, and instead try to relax enough to do something sensible about it.
Example: Let’s say you are afraid of spiders, and you see a spider in the room. Maybe you have the urge to leave the room or frantically find something to kill it with. To face that fear, sit down facing the spider, staying at a safe and challenging (but not panic inducing) distance, and breathe. Breathe until you can actually be in the presence of the spider without feeling like you absolutely need to run away or kill it. Once you’ve managed to do that, you can try to get closer until the fear is strong again, then breathe again until you feel alright enough to continue. This may not happen in one sitting, but the idea is that eventually you could be right next to the spider, and you might even be able to pick it up, without having an overwhelming fear response.
Benefits of facing your fear
Building that fear-fighting muscle is a valuable skill, because it teaches you a strategy for remaining calm under difficult circumstances. Fear is a necessary emotion that helps you deal with life-threatening situations and keeps you alive. The point is not to become a fearless machine, but to learn to be afraid, maybe even terrified, and still manage to think when you need to. Of course, if you’re standing in front of a snake, it would be a good idea to back away. However, in our day and age, most of us are not facing that kind of fear. Most of us are under pressure at work or facing toxic people we have to deal with. Therefore, learning to remain calm in stressful situation, to be afraid and still manage to think of something to say and do, is a valuable skill.
As I mentioned before, this skill is generalizable. So that means that you can practice facing your fear of spiders, and it will help you have a strategy for facing your boss at work. Sure, the stakes may not be the same, but the fear response will be. That means that dealing with the actual physical response of being afraid can work similarly in any fear-inducing situation.
So, by all means, as long as it is safe to do so, practice facing your fear instead of running away from it as much as possible. You will learn more than you can imagine about how resilient you are in the face of threats. You might even surprise yourself at how good you are at it.