It’s possible to overcome even the most deep seated fears. This was discovered by Albert Bandura - named one of the greatest living psychologists. Only Freud, Skinner and Piaget rank higher on a published list of eminent 20th Century Psychologists.t
In a set of experiments, he managed to help people overcome a lifelong phobia of snakes but just very gradually increasing their demands on it.
Watch a snake in a two way mirror. Once that became easy…
Observe it through an open door. Once that became easy…
Watch someone else touch the snake. Once that became easy…
Touching it themselves with a heavy glove. Once that became easy…
Touch it themselves with their bare hands (within a few hours)
Bandura gave this process a beautiful name - guided mastery.
Here’s the kicker - the clients didn’t just overcome their fear of snakes. They had less anxiety in other parts of their lives too, taking on other challenges like horse riding or public speaking. They put in more effort and for longer when facing failure. And they had more resilience and confidence too!
The Magic of Habituation
So, how does this strategy work? It’ the magic of what’s called habituation.
Let’s say you get a new smartphone. The first day is exciting. The second day not so much. And a few weeks later, you’re not really excited by it at all. This is due to habituation - you’ve got used to it. Your nervous system arousal decreases with time. In other words, you get bored with things that are familiar. This is of genetic advantage - the less energy you use on the familiar, the more energy you have for the unfamiliar. Habituation has evolved as a way of conserving energy.
Psychologists take advantage of dishabituation by, for example, encouraging couples to try something new. This novel experience arouses their nervous system, moving them from boredom to excitement, with all the positive experiences that go with excitement amongst couples.
However, the most powerful way of making use of habituation is to overcome fear and anxiety.
Anxiety and Avoidance
Anxiety is a state of arousal for your nervous system. Let’s say you’re scared of travelling underground. By avoiding the underground, you’re not allowing your nervous system to get used to travelling underground. By avoiding the experience, you never habituate. Your nervous system stays aroused in connection with underground travel. This avoidance has a tendency to spread. So then you avoid taking lifts underground and going into tunnels and so on. You keep your nervous system aroused due to your avoidance. The anxiety unfortunately grows.
Additionally, by avoiding something that scares you, you add to your sense of failure. Each time you avoid the action, your anxiety strengthens whilst your confidence decreases. You have a feeling of a lack of mastery. You add another piece of evidence that you can’t do go underground or face spiders, for example.
So avoiding fear both maintains and increases it. Intuitively we as human being avoid fear because we think that will mean we will experience less fear. But in fact, avoiding fear leads to greater fear and lower confidence.
The Solution: Exposure
The solution - make use of the power of habituation. When you ‘expose’ yourself to whatever you fear, with time and through habituation, your anxiety lessens. In other words, you face your fears till they naturally reduce. Of all techniques in psychology, exposure therapy is the most effective of them all - especially when it comes to overcoming anxiety.
There’s two reasons why people don’t like the idea of exposure to their fear to overcome it.
It’s counter-intuitive - but lots of things in life are counterintuitive e.g. planes which are hundreds of tons of metal, can fly in the air.
It’s scary because you feel your fear will grow bigger and bigger. This is due to a lack of understanding of habituation. In reality, the feeling of fear doesn’t escalate. The feeling subsides over time. That’s just how your nervous system works.
So by far the best way to overcome your fear of anything is to do it. If you’re scared of public speaking, you’ll need to speak publicly. If you’re scared being on trains, you’ll need to sit on a train. You need to feel the fear and do it anyway. The good news is, you don’t need to dive in the deep end. You can start slowly and gradually, and build it up from there, as described earlier.
The Power of Taking Action
The power of exposure and habituation works on other levels too - not just plain calming your nervous system.
Psychological - Everytime you face your fear, you’re better able to cope. You think ‘I can do it. I can overcome my challenges.’ Your confidence grows.
Behavioural - you develop skills to be able to overcome your fears. You have a greater sense of mastery over your fears.
Emotional - at the core of most if not all anxiety is a fear of fear itself. By exposing yourself to the feeling of fear, you habituate to it. Most people know public speaking, flights, spiders or lifts are not dangerous. But they fear the feelings of fear. By exposing themselves to the feeling, they are better able to learn how the feelings arise and subside within themselves. The feeling of fear always goes down with time - that’s just how your nervous system works.
So the old cliches of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, or even ‘do something that scares you everyday’ are good pieces of advice. I’m not saying it’s easy or comfortable. But the alternative is to live a life in which your fears grow stronger and stronger and you are able to do less and less.
Some people believe mindfulness works through exposure too. By being mindful, you allow yourself to face up to your emotions. Over time you habituate to those feelings, and rather than being overwhelmed by them, you are able to cope and manage them.
I say take a kindful approach - go slowly, take your time and treat yourself as you would a good friend. This approach will make the whole process more enjoyable and less challenging too.
Imagine if fears did just keep growing bigger despite your efforts - then you’d be in real trouble. But fortunately the opposite is the truth. If you just break down your fear into small steps, and start taking actions, your fear is almost guaranteed to diminish due to the magic of exposure and habituation. The most proven way to overcome your fears and thereby enjoy a life of greater confidence, mastery and joy.
If you’d like to learn more about my approach of combining mindfulness with kindness, consider my free 7 day course. Or my full 8 week program which is currently on sale - includes 60 mini daily videos and over 15 guided kindfulness audio meditations to try.
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