The science of facing fears, whether it be OCD, panic attacks, heights, or dating, is very clear. If you want to get over a phobia (i.e. irrational fear) you must confront it head on. You must practice doing what you are afraid of without practicing doing those things that make you feel safe. You must be willing to call Anxiety’s bluff and show it that even though it says you will die from a panic attack, you are going to prove it wrong!
Just because the science of Anxiety management is clear doesn’t make the challenge of facing your fears any more appealing. It requires hard work and a commitment to feeling uncomfortable temporarily so that you can live a more comfortable life with the freedom to choose your own destiny.
When I was eight years-old, I went to a swimming pool with a high dive. Climbing up that long, lonely ladder to the top and crossing over to the end of the diving board felt like I was a death row inmate whose number was finally up. The choice I had at that point was to face my fear and take the plunge or to crawl back down only to have my fear strengthened. Do I scare myself and take the plunge which would allow me to grow into a more courageous and free person or do I avoid the challenge and seek the immediate gratification of comfort? That is the question that those who have an anxiety disorder must answer for themselves. No one can make that decision for them.
Certain fears are more easily confronted. Take the fear of heights, for example. It is one of the most treatable of all fears. Go to a mildly uncomfortable high place; the 2nd floor of a parking garage, for example. Go to the edge and do nothing to feel better…just wait. It may take five minutes or an hour, but at some point the fear is very likely to reduce. When the fear comes down then go up one floor and wait again. Repeat this with progressively higher places until the fear is well under control.
While you can take a gradual approach with some fears, other fears are more challenging. Take my former phobia of flying. You are either flying or you are not! There is only so much preparation work you can do before you are actually hurtling across the sky at 500mph. Recently I have treated some clients with OCD who had tremendous fears of dying from food allergies (which there was no evidence that they actually had). Having the client in my office holding a macadamia nut was panic-producing for them, but to actually put it in their mouth, chew it, and swallow it was really taking the plunge. It was only by taking the plunge, however, that this person could begin to regain their freedom from OCD.
If you are reading this, chances are you are wrestling with a fear of your own. Logically, you know that facing it is the best way to get over it, but it just seems so hard. I know you’re scared. I get that… been there. You can try to find some ways of breaking the fear up into smaller steps, but ultimately, you have to take action if you want to get better. You have to be willing to take the plunge. Are you up to the challenge?
Eric Goodman, Ph.D.