Fear is an emotion that often occurs when someone feels they are in danger. While fear can be a healthy and safe response to certain situations, some mental health issues may cause a person’s fear response to activate more often or in situations that aren’t dangerous. Therapy can help people process feelings of fear that begin to affect their quality of life.
- Managing and Overcoming Fear
- How Therapy Can Help Overcome Fear
- Types of Therapy for Fear
- Therapy for Fear: Case Examples
Managing and Overcoming Fear
Day-to-day fears may cause a person to experience some level of anxiety or panic. Feeling frightened can be an unpleasant experience, but attempting to completely suppress fearful emotions is not always a helpful solution. Instead, finding a distraction from fearful thoughts may bring some people relief.
Taking time to consider the fear rationally may also help people overcome certain fears, although this does not always help. People who experience fear caused by anxiety might know that one of their fears is irrational, but still may not be able to stop thinking or worrying about it.
Examining thoughts that are causing the fear can be a first step to addressing and overcoming it. Therapy can help people examine what is causing them to feel afraid and then process the underlying fearful beliefs or thoughts.
A person might also consider the following questions:
- What am I afraid of?
- Is this fear realistic?
- What is the worst that can happen?
- What can I do protect myself from that outcome?
- Is the worst-case scenario really so disastrous?
- Where in my body do I feel fear?
- How do I feel when I take a few deep breaths?
Avoidance tends to make fear stronger. Meanwhile, slowly exposing oneself to objects and situations that cause fear may help reduce the level of fear experienced, helping a person overcome it.
The process may take time, and fear may persist, but support from family and friends can often be helpful. In the case of chronic fears or phobias, it may help to seek out a qualified therapist or mental health professional, as phobias and chronic fear can often interfere with well-being and typical daily function if left unaddressed.
How Therapy Can Help with Fear
Specific phobias, paranoia, and other intense fears may be debilitating. Sometimes, they may exist as the result of an underlying concern. When this is the case, the issue may often be addressed and examined in therapy. Therapy can support people in managing fear by helping them:
- Understand what is causing their fear
- Put fear into perspective
- Set realistic expectations for the future
Persistent or intense fear may lead to anxiety, worry, stress, and other mental health concerns. Some people may be afraid of things that are unlikely to happen, such as being struck by lightning, while others may fear a more realistic threat, such as being mugged or burglarized. A person might fear many different things, and some people may feel afraid without knowing the cause of their fear at all. Talking to a therapist about your fears can help you clarify and resolve it.
Types of Therapy for Fear
Many therapeutic approaches can be used to help people overcome fear. Which strategy is used may depend on what is causing a person’s fear. Fear brought on by a phobia, fear caused by anxiety, fear brought on by a specific event, and fear with no known cause may require different approaches in therapy. Some common types of therapy for helping people manage fear include:
- Exposure therapy: This type of therapy may prove helpful or empowering for people experiencing general feelings of fear or fear caused by obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Exposure therapy is typically conducted by exposing people to their fear gradually.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is one of the most often used approaches for helping people manage fear. It may also help people work through fear caused by anxiety, panic, OCD, and other mental health issues.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR may be particularly helpful for people whose feelings of fear are caused by past trauma.
- Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy has been adapted to help people who experience panic to overcome fear. The approach utilizes the process of transference to address fear caused by panic.
People who often feel fearful may find that therapy can help them transform any maladaptive behaviors into positive thoughts and actions. Additionally, a therapist may also be able to teach those affected by fear how to recognize triggers for fear as well as the skills needed for effective fear management.
Therapy for Fear: Case Examples
- Therapy to address fear of death: Isaiah, 37, enters therapy because, as he reports, he is afraid of “almost everything.” He has taken time off from work because he recently he has become unable to go out in public. Loud noises cause his heart to race, and he has trouble falling asleep because of fearful thoughts that "keep looping" in his head. When he does sleep, he wakes frequently, and he admits to the therapist that his fatigue is likely making his fear worse. Throughout the therapy session, he is restless and jumpy, and the therapist first teaches Isaiah some simple meditation techniques to help him calm down enough to focus on their conversation. Once he is calm, they begin to discuss his fear. At first, he cannot state what is actually causing his fear, but after the therapist and Isaiah address various areas of concern in his life, it becomes apparent that the majority of Isaiah's fears stem from an intense fear of death. The therapist helps him to realize that many people fear dying, although death is an inevitable part of life, and helps him to see that avoiding any situation that might potentially cause death will only diminish his quality of life. Isaiah and the therapist work together to explore strategies that will help reduce Isaiah's fear in order to allow him to resume work and go out in public easily.
- Fear experienced after leaving religious cult: Rachel, 17, sees her school guidance counselor after a teacher reads a journal entry she wrote for class and encourages her to talk to the counselor. In the entry, Rachel wrote that she is unable to stop thinking about "the end of the world" and that she is afraid of burning in hell for her "sins." She finds it difficult to sleep or eat and feels anxious and nauseous almost constantly. Rachel tells the counselor that her family belonged to a cult until a year earlier, when her parents broke away. They told Rachel and her sister that the teachings were wrong, that they no longer believed in them, but Rachel was raised in the cult and has found their sudden departure difficult to accept. She reports being overwhelmed by the new freedoms she is allowed and tells the counselor that she does not know what is "right" anymore and that she is afraid of committing sins. The counselor refers Rachel to a therapist, who begins helping Rachel explore the causes of her fear and anxiety. The therapist encourages Rachel to discuss her feelings with her family, and this leads to several family therapy sessions that are helpful for both Rachel and her sister, who was beginning to act out as a result of overwhelm similar to Rachel's. Rachel's distress begins to ease slowly, and after a few months, she finds herself able to choose to do things forbidden by the cult, such as attend a school dance, without significant anxiety or distress.
- Busch, F. N., Milrod, B. L., & Singer, M. B. (1999). Theory and technique in psychodynamic treatment of panic disorder. The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, 8(3), 234-242. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3330557
- King, N. J., Muris, P. & Ollendick, T. H. (2005). Childhood fears and phobias: Assessment and treatment. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 10(2), 50-56.
- National Health Service. (2014). Ten ways to fight your fears. Retrieved from http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/overcoming-fears.aspx
- Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms/index.shtml#pub6