Facing and overcoming fears
What is fear?
Fear is an emotion provoked by a threat of danger, or of harm or pain. Everyone experiences fear at some time. It’s a normal part of life and can protect us from harm.
Fear can be caused by a real threat (such as an angry snarling dog) or by an imagined threat. Where fear is due to an imagined threat, it can usually be overcome by logic and reason.
Fear that becomes persistent (ongoing) and irrational — and out of proportion to the situation — is known as a phobia.
Here we are not talking about phobias, but only about the mental obstacles that sometimes hold us back from situations, places or activities that once were enjoyable.
Overcoming your fears
Facing your fears can be a very hard thing to do. But sometimes it is the best way to deal with feelings of anxiety or excessive worry
One of the simplest ways to overcome your fears is to do the very thing you are anxious about and which causes fear.
The key is to gently push yourself to do things that take you a little way out of your ‘comfort zone’. Gradually, you increase your exposure until you can tolerate the uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, anxiety and distress. This is a type of ‘exposure therapy’ — a psychological treatment that helps people confront their fears.
It’s not about putting yourself in dangerous situations, but about learning to cope with irrational fears.
That way you learn you can manage to do what's causing you the worry. It may take time to get to the point where you no longer feel worried or anxious. Don’t be hard on yourself if you find it takes longer than you would like.
It’s a good idea to begin confronting your fear gradually. This is known as ‘graded exposure’, where you begin with easier situations until you are comfortable with them, before progressing to more difficult ones.
In practice, this might mean you start with a few sessions of imagining the object of your fear, for example needles, before looking at pictures or watching a video of someone getting vaccinated. Or, if your fear is social situations with groups of people, start with small gatherings before working up to spending time with larger groups.
Who can help?
It is possible to do exposure therapy yourself or with a psychologist. Exposure therapy is sometimes done in conjunction with cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Sometimes virtual reality is used to treat specific problems.
A psychologist will be able to advise on the best techniques, and design a programme for you that helps build up your tolerance of the uncomfortable feelings and breaks the pattern of fear and avoidance.
The support of family and friends is important at this time since they can help you cope with the new challenges you are taking on.
3 tips for facing your fears
- When you are trying something new, or something that you have been worried about, it is normal to feel a bit panicky — don’t let this feeling stop you.
- You may find breathing exercises helpful to calm you when you are feeling anxious.
- Challenge your thoughts. Ask yourself if your fears are valid. How likely is it that your fears will be realised?
Set yourself short-term and long-term goals, and reward yourself every time you reach a goal. Even the smallest of things is an achievement, so give yourself credit where credit is due.
When should I see my doctor?
If feelings of fear become ongoing and over-powering you should see your doctor or a mental health professional.
Fear can be a symptom of some mental health conditions, for example post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorder and anxiety. Your doctor will be able to assess your symptoms and advise on the best course of action.
FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.
ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.
Resources and support
If you need help, talking to your doctor is a good place to start. If you’d like to find out more or talk to someone else, here are some organisations that can help:
- MindSpot Clinic (anyone suffering from anxiety or depression) — call 1800 61 44 34.
- Beyond Blue (anyone feeling depressed or anxious) — call 1300 22 4636 or chat online.
- Black Dog Institute (people affected by depression and extreme mood swings) — online help.
- Lifeline (anyone experiencing a crisis or thinking about suicide) — call 13 11 14 or chat online.
- Suicide Call Back Service (anyone thinking about suicide) — call 1300 659 467.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2022