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Start small and work your way up the mountain of fears.

Originally published Aug 26, 2019 on psychologytoday.com

Many of us are stymied in our lives by a plethora of things that we fear or have phobias about. In fact, an estimated 9.1 percent of Americans, more than 19 million people, have at least one phobia, and many people have more than one specific phobia. For example, approximately 15 million American adults, or 7.1 percent of the adult population, and 5.5 percent of the teenage population are affected by social phobia.

About 30 percent of those with social phobia have a severe case. Some lesser fears can take various forms, such as fear from public speaking, doing something alone, taking risks, and making decisions. Many activities we avoid are based on fear of failure, and others are based on the type of fears that activate a part of the amygdala in our brains that prepares us for a “fight or flight” response.

Whatever the reason for our fears, we intentionally avoid certain activities. This inaction erodes our belief in our competence and effectiveness in the world. Many studies have shown that exposing yourself to something you’re afraid of in small increments reduces fear and commensurate anxiety. This technique of exposure therapy has been shown to reduce our sensitivity to triggering situations.

Studies have also demonstrated that 60-90 percent of individuals treated with exposure therapy report a clinically significant reduction in anxiety. Dr. Sharon Melnick, a leading business psychologist, notes most people fear criticism, rejection, or failure. These fears undermine propulsion and confidence. Facing fear short-circuits the negative self-narrative and re-builds the confidence that is necessary to achieve more life satisfaction.

I’ve found it’s effective to identify and face one fear every day, no matter how small it may be. Maintaining consistency is important. If you engage in changing behavior with regularity, it becomes a habit. I use this strategy. I’ve developed a simple questionnaire to help you determine if you’re susceptible to avoiding fears and five (5) techniques to help you conquer some of your fears.

Ask yourself these questions to see if you’re susceptible to avoiding more fears than facing them.

Are you afraid of taking risks?

John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern coined the term “risk adverse” in their book, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, to explain how our behavior is based on making choices to reduce uncertainty. However, this behavioral model backhandedly undermines the belief in our ability to cope with unknown outcomes.

Do you need a consensus and approval before proceeding?

Many people try reducing their fears by delegating decisions to a group. They believe doing something that the group chooses is more legitimate. This approach can be very problematic because if you’re following the group, you cannot develop strong feelings of personal efficacy.

Will you trust your intuition and follow your instincts?

By learning to follow your intuition and instincts, you start to trust yourself. Trusting yourself is an important building block for a belief in your ability to cope with the unknown. It enables you to believe you can handle the consequences should they be different than you had hoped.

Are you prone to inaction?

People who don’t act are stuck in homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency towards equilibrium. It’s easy to become complacent living a homeostatic life. Facing fears can generate feelings of anxiety. Overcoming fears shows our brain that we are strong and competent. This charge propels us forward.

Have you recently completed something you found challenging?

If you answered no, then you may be “risk adverse” and trying to avoid feeling out of equilibrium. Satisfaction can’t be achieved without challenging ourselves. It is found within by overcoming fear, challenging our homeostasis, acting on our avoidance, and coping with our anxiety.

When facing a fear, believe in your ability to find doors and change course. If your fear is coming from a fear of failure, remind yourself that you can change paths and find another door to more options. No path is permanent if you have the mental flexibility to believe in your ability to effectively problem solve alternative solutions.