Overcoming Anxiety: Facing Your Fears

Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health conditions in the United States. Nearly 40 million people (18.1% of the population) are affected by these disorders yearly. Yet, only 36.9% of those 40 million seek out treatment.

The difficulty with anxiety is it can have a major impact on people’s lives. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, your anxiety may be holding you back in your career. Or, if you struggle with social anxiety disorder, you may find yourself isolated and developing other mental illnesses, such as depression.

It’s important for us to overcome anxiety in order to gain control of our lives again. Of course, this is easier said than done.

While traditional treatment with medication and psychotherapy can be effective. Some people have found other ways to curb anxiety symptoms. And one of the most popular is exposure therapy.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy (sometimes referred to as immersion therapy) is a psychological treatment that forces you to confront your fears in a controlled environment. While people’s fears vary, they often include objects, activities, and situations that they avoid.

Avoidance has the perk of reducing fear for a temporary period of time. However, as we’ll get to later, it can actually have a negative effect on the individual.

By setting up a safe space for you to expose yourself to your fears, psychologists hope to reduce avoidance tendencies. Exposure therapy has been found to be effective for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in helping people overcome triggers related to their trauma.

There are a different types of exposure therapy depending on your fears, including:

  • In vivo exposure - Facing a feared object, situation, or activity directly in real time. For example, someone with social anxiety may have a one-on-one conversation with a stranger or give a speech in front of a simulated audience.

  • Imaginal exposure - When one experiences their fears through vivid imagination. For example, someone with PTSD may be asked to recall their traumatic experience.

  • Virtual reality exposure - Similar to in vivo exposure, this form of therapy allows individuals to experience a virtual version of their fears. This may be used for fears that are too costly to replicate in real life, such as a fear of flying.

  • Interoceptive exposure - Purposefully facing harmless physical sensations that an individual fears. For example, you may be asked to perform exercises that can bring about fears.

  • There are a few other ways that exposure therapies can differ from one another. However, the bottom line is many who are struggling with anxiety are participating in these therapies and seeing results. And the primary reason is because it prevents avoidance habits.

    The Problem with Avoiding Fears

    Avoiding fearful situations may make you feel safe in the short-term, but in the long-term, this behavior actually increases anxiety. Whenever you avoid a fear, you’re telling your amygdala (where fear is processed in the brain) that you’re unable to face an anxiety.

    The more you repeat this behavior, the more you’re reinforcing your amygdala. In turn, you’re creating a negative feedback loop that increases anxiety whenever you are faced with what you’re avoiding.

    In an animal study, it was found that the brain is able to overcome a fear only when it’s repeatedly exposed to it. In order to get this information, researchers gave a mild shock to rodents in a specific box. Over time, these rodents identified the box with a fear of being shocked. And whenever they were placed into the box without a shock, they froze from the fear. However, with enough time, the rodents were able to relax.

    Of course, humans likely process fears much differently than rodents. Still, the idea of coming face-to-face with your fears and habituating your amygdala has been found effective through exposure therapy.

    Should You Face Your Fears on Your Own?

    While exposure therapy is a formal solution to exposing yourself to your fears, it may not be an option for everyone. Understandably, such therapy isn’t offered everywhere and more so, it can be quite pricey.

    With that, some may wonder whether or not it’s best to simply face their fears themselves. There are a few pros and cons to this.

    First off, you’re not in a controlled environment as you would be in exposure therapy. This puts you at more of a risk for danger, such as having a panic attack without anyone there to help you. It’s important to consider your level of danger before going out into the world and facing your fears.

    Secondly, there may be other forms of therapy more suitable for your situation. Before you expose yourself to anything, you may want to write down a list of pros and cons when it comes to facing your fears. What could go right? What could go wrong? Do the pros outweigh the cons?

    Finally, it may be worth it to have a close friend or relative by your side as you expose yourself to your fears. With someone you trust, you can minimize the danger and with a support system, you can maximize recovery from anxiety.

    Still, exposure therapy itself remains the safest (and possibly most effective) way to expose yourself to your fears.

    Final Word

    By exposing yourself to your fear, your end goal should be to break the habits of anxiety. Over time, your brain should become conditioned so you no longer fear an object, activity, or situation.

    Of course, exposure therapy doesn’t work for everyone and you may need to incorporate other remedies, such as natural medicines, into your recovery plan.

    Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to anxiety. With that, you’re going to have to experiment around first in order to find the best path for you.