How to Face Your Fears

Nervous sweaty speaker preparing speech wiping wet forehead with handkerchief
fizkes / Getty Images

A little bit of fear is normal. In fact, fear helps you instinctively protect yourself from harm. Your fear might help you to recognize when you’re about to do something dangerous, and it could help you to make a safer choice.

But, you might find yourself fearful of things that aren’t actually dangerous, like public speaking. Your fear of public speaking might prevent you from advancing in your career or participating in traditions like giving a toast at your best friend's wedding.

If you really want to go on a vacation to Europe, but your fear of flying gives you pause, you might feel like your fear is stopping you from living your dream. If you find that your fear holds you back or creates bigger problems in your life, facing your fear may help you learn to better cope with the fear and ultimately overcome it.

Common ways of facing your fears are evaluating the risks, creating an action plan, seeing a therapist, and being sure not to completely avoid your fears. However, you may need to first decide whether it’s necessary to face your fear if it is not part of your daily life.

Evaluate Risks

Sometimes, fear comes from simply not knowing very much about the thing you fear. For example, you might be afraid of airplanes because it seems like you have heard about a lot of in-air incidents that lead to injury or death.

However, if you look into the statistics, you might learn that the probability of death on a U.S. commercial jet airline is 1 in 7 million (in comparison to 1 in 600 from smoking).

You can also learn more about what causes those bumps and jolts during turbulence on an aircraft—it’s simply the movement of air having an effect on the aircraft and, if you’re buckled in properly, poses very little threat to you.

Of course, less tangible fears, such as being afraid of public speaking, don’t necessarily have statistics to help you learn more about the risks you perceive. But you can read about other people’s successful public speaking ventures, or learn more about the successful public speaking strategies, to help you feel more confident.

Keep in mind that just because something feels scary, it doesn’t mean it’s actually risky. Educate yourself about the facts and the risks you actually face by doing the things that scare you.

Create an Action Plan

The key to facing your fears is to take one small step at a time. Going too fast or doing something too scary before you are ready can backfire.

But it’s also important to keep moving forward. A moderate amount of anxiety is OK. Don’t wait for your anxiety to disappear before taking a step forward, or you may find yourself waiting for a change that isn't going to come on its own.

The best way to create an action plan is to create a fear hierarchy made up of small steps. Here’s an example of how someone might face the fear of public speaking one step at a time using a form of exposure therapy:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror and give a two-minute talk.
  2. Record yourself giving a talk and watch it back.
  3. Practice the talk in front of a partner.
  4. Practice the talk in front of a partner and family member.
  5. Practice the talk in front of a partner, family member, and one friend.
  6. Practice the talk in front of a partner, family member, and two friends.
  7. Give the talk in a meeting at work.

In some cases, virtual reality treatment may be an option to provide exposure therapy. The treatment has shown promise in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Seek a Therapist

If your fears are debilitating, you aren’t having much success facing them on your own, or your fear is related to a specific health condition, like an eating disorder, social anxiety disorder, or PTSD, you can seek the help of a trusted mental health professional. If you have a specific phobia, which is a persistent, diagnosable anxiety disorder, you may not feel prepared to conquer your fears on your own.

A cognitive behavioral therapist can help desensitize you to your fears one small step at a time. Most mental health professionals are comfortable treating a variety of fears and phobias ranging from the fear of public speaking to arachnophobia.

Treatment may involve talking about the thing that scares you, practicing relaxation strategies, and managing your anxiety as you face your fears head-on. A therapist can help you go at a pace that is comfortable and healthy for you.

Fear-facing treatment may include:

Avoiding vs. Facing Your Fears

While avoiding the situations you fear might make you feel better in the short term, avoidance can cause increased anxiety in the long term. When you completely avoid your fears, you teach your amygdala (the fear center in your brain) that you can't handle them.

On the contrary, gradually facing your fears, in small doses that don't overwhelm you, may help decrease anxiety "habituating" your amygdala, or letting your brain become accustomed to the fear.

According to an animal study published in the journal Science, the brain has to experience repeated exposure to fear in order to get over it. Researchers placed rodents in a small box and gave them a mild shock. Then, over a long period, they place the same rodents in a box without administering shocks. At first, the mice froze but with repeated exposure, they were able to relax.

While animal research isn't directly applicable to humans, the thought behind facing your fears aims to achieve a similar outcome.

Should You Face Your Fear?

You don’t need to conquer every fear you have. A fear of tsunamis may not be disruptive to your everyday life if you live 1,000 miles away from the ocean. But it may be a problem if you live on the coast and panic every time you hear about earthquakes, storms, or high tides because you think you might be in danger, or you avoid going on a vacation you'd otherwise enjoy in an effort to avoid getting close to open water.

Have an internal conversation with yourself about what your fears are stopping you from doing, and consider whether it’s a problem that you need to confront. Are your fears causing you to lead a less fulfilling life than the one you hoped for?

  1. Consider the pros and cons of not facing your fear. Write those down.
  2. Identify the pros and cons of tackling your fears head-on.
  3. Write down what you might achieve or how your life might be different if you overcome your fear.
  4. Read over the lists to make a clearer decision about what to do next.

Fear vs. Phobia

When determining whether you should face your fear on your own, it's important to understand the distinction between a normal fear and a phobia. When psychologists distinguish between fears and phobias, the key difference is the strength of the fear response and its impact on the person's life.

You also might watch videos about airplanes, or park your car near an airport in an area where you can watch flights land and take off. Learning more about planes and being near them may help ease your fear over time. 

If you can’t actually do the thing that scares you to practice, you might use imagined exposure. For example, while it’s difficult to practice flying on an airplane one step at a time, you might be able to induce a little anxiety by imagining yourself getting on a plane. Think about how it would feel to take your seat and how you would handle feeling the plane take off.

Both fears and phobias generate an emotional response, but a phobia causes anxiety that is disproportionate to the perceived threat so much so that it interferes with a person's ability to function. For example, while a fear of flying may make you anxious about an upcoming trip or have you considering an alternate means of travel, if you have aerophobia (a specific phobia surrounding flying), your phobia may impact your daily life, including:

  • Spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about flying (even when a trip isn't imminent)
  • Avoiding airports
  • Becoming anxious when planes fly overhead
  • Having an inability to board a flight, or experiencing a serious physiological response like sweating, shaking, or crying if you do board a plane

While treatment for phobia may very well include an element of facing the fear in the form of guided therapy, it may also include medication or alternative therapies.

Press Play for Advice on Facing Your Fears

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares a strategy to help you find courage when you need it the most. Click below to listen now.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

A Word From Verywell

The best way to conquer a fear is to face it head on, but it’s important to do so in a healthy manner that helps you move past the fear rather than in a way that traumatizes you. If you're having difficulty on your own, a mental health professional can guide you gradually through the situations that you fear, being sure to first work on the thought patterns that keep you stuck.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Seif, M. Eight Steps to Overcoming Your Fear of Flying. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

  2. Clinical Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What Is Exposure Therapy?. American Psychological Association (APA), Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology).

  3. Pachana NA, Woodward RM, Byrne GJ. Treatment of specific phobia in older adults. Clin Interv Aging. 2007;2(3):469-76. PMID:18044196

  4. Khalaf O, Resch S, Dixsaut L, Gorden V, Glauser L, Gräff J. Reactivation of recall-induced neurons contributes to remote fear memory attenuation. Science. 2018;360(6394):1239-1242. doi:10.1126/science.aas9875

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.