How to Conquer Your Fears

Life Events

For much of his early childhood, Mark Yatman of San Francisco battled with reading and writing disabilities. They limited his ability to socialize and engage in grade school curriculums, and kept him reading at a grade level two to three years lower than his peers. Not surprisingly, he developed a phobia of attending class and of public speaking altogether.

Even with tutors and after-school reading programs, Mark retreated into a sort of mental paralysis. Mark’s fear might not be categorized as extreme, but its potential long-term effects were still very real. His fear—what he felt —had become a phobia, a persistent anxiety about certain situations that kept him from fully experiencing his life.

Fear of heights, swimming near sharks, and speaking in public are common human fears. We all experience fear from time to time, but says if avoiding the object, activity, or situation that triggers your fear interferes with your normal functioning or keeps you from doing things you would otherwise enjoy, it’s time to seek help.

Fortunately, aware of his affinity for science fiction, Mark's mother bought him comic books as a last-ditch effort. Despite his difficulty wading through the text, Mark's desire to know more about Batman and Wolverine helped him overpower his fears. Soon, the boy who had struggled to get through half a comic book was devouring science textbooks, then Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and even the truly horrifying Mary Shelley.

In time, Mark was reading at a level equal to that of his classmates, and, perhaps more importantly, deriving strength from his struggles with reading and speaking in public.

A More Confident You

Fear, in its purest sense, is an important evolutionary function. It can be a powerful motivator, as long as it doesn't consume us. Learning to confront fears in healthy ways, especially when we’re young, can offer opportunities for personal growth as we confront a wide variety of stressful situations as we get older.

As University of California-Berkeley Counseling and Psychology Services Fellow Samuel Tourek, Ph.D., explains, this is a function of the "profound sense of accomplishment" we can gain from mastering our fears. "This has tremendous implications for our understanding of self, as well as our understanding of the world as a benevolent place," Tourek says.

Tourek explains that "facing the fear head-on and surviving to realize it's not as bad [as expected] - can be traumatic if not done carefully." Therefore, Mark's mother's decision to tackle the issue by tapping into her son's known interests was a savvy, even life-altering one.

Today, Mark speaks to people every day as part of his job, whether over the phone or in person. His ability to confront his fear - with the help of his mother and some practical techniques- turned what was once a weakness into a strength and sense of confidence.

"All this was because my mother took the time to understand what I was actually interested in and adapted it to help me overcome what could have been a devastating fear," Mark says.

For Mark, it's about speaking and reading aloud regularly. For someone else, it may be about swimming laps daily to confront issues with getting in the water, or going on small hikes to get used to high elevations.

People who overcome their fears gain a sense of self-affirmation that can be truly empowering. By beginning with the basics, such as identification and acknowledgement, then working on more specific methods for tackling and overcoming the fear, we can achieve true personal growth.

Control and Conquer

Taking control of your fears is daunting, whether it involves getting into the water because of a fear of sharks, being able to go to the top of the Space Needle because of a fear of heights, or overcoming academic struggles at a young age.

So how can you face your fears and learn to embrace the situations that stop you in your tracks today? suggests breaking the process down into steps that make the challenge less daunting as a whole:

1. Face your fears, one step at a time

The most effective way to overcome a fear is by gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to what you fear in a safe and controlled way. During this exposure process, you’ll learn to ride out the anxiety and fear until it inevitably passes. With each exposure, you’ll feel more confident and in control and the fear begins to lose its power.

While it’s natural to feel scared or anxious as you face your fear, you should never feel overwhelmed by these feelings. If you start to feel overwhelmed, immediately back off. You may need to spend more time learning to control feelings of anxiety (see the relaxation techniques below), or you may feel more comfortable working with a therapist.

2. Learn relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and muscle relaxation are powerful antidotes to anxiety, panic, and fear. With regular practice, they can improve your ability to control the physical symptoms of anxiety, which will make facing your fear less intimidating.

3. Challenge negative thoughts

When you have a fear, you tend to overestimate how bad it will be if you’re exposed to the situation that causes anxiety. At the same time, you underestimate your ability to cope. It can help to put these thoughts to the test. Begin by writing down any negative thoughts you have when confronted with your fear.

Negative thought: “The elevator will break down and I’ll get trapped and suffocate.”

Then come up with some positive coping statements that you can tell yourself when facing your fear. For example: “I’ve felt this way before and nothing terrible happened. It may be unpleasant, but it won’t harm me.”

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