How to Effectively Face Your Fears

To Change Your Relationship with Anxiety, Break Up with Avoidance

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If you’ve ever made the acquaintance of Anxiety, then you’ve probably met Anxiety’s best friend, Avoidance. Anxiety and Avoidance like to do — or more aptly, not do — everything together.

  • Anxiety has you worried about finances, and Avoidance tells you not to even bother analyzing your monthly spending habits.
  • Anxiety has you worried about your work performance, and Avoidance tells you to stay quiet during the big sales pitch meeting with your client.
  • Anxiety has you worried about your health, and Avoidance tells you that if you just don’t go to the doctor, you won’t get any bad news!

If you’d like to change your relationship with Anxiety, you’ll need to break up with Avoidance first. Like any break-up, it will take preparation and courage to relinquish your ties to Avoidance. But not only is it possible, facing your fears can be really helpful. In fact, exposure (a component of cognitive behavioral therapy referring to the intentional seeking out of anxiety-producing situations) is a critical element in the successful treatment of many anxiety problems.

As you work to approach your anxiety, keep these five tips in mind.

Welcome Discomfort

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It is totally normal to feel uncomfortable — nervous, scared, keyed up, or afraid — when facing fears. Expect it, and try to welcome it as a sign that you’re doing an exposure correctly. Trying to fight the discomfort might provide temporary relief, but if you stay with the uncomfortable feelings and remind yourself that they will not last forever, you will be on your way to a longer-term relief. 

Lean Into Your Worries

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You are likely going to feel tempted to avoid in some fashion, perhaps by using so-called safety behaviors (i.e., behaviors that keep you from feeling anxious or make you feel “safe” even though you’re not in danger). However, these behaviors will pull you away from anxiety, effectively undoing any learning that might occur by sticking with it. So instead, note the temptation to avoid without acting on it, and keep on leaning in to the discomfort.  

Track Your Progress

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Note how distressed you are before, during, and after facing your fear. This form of self-monitoring provides a written record that can be analyzed later; it will help you to pay attention to ways in which your level of distress or discomfort changes over time. 

Stay with Anxiety and Notice as it Changes

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Stay with the feelings until they diminish, or become much more tolerable. Remain committed to staying present with the uncomfortable situation until your discomfort subsides, no matter how long this takes. If, because of the situation, this is impractical, do your best to keep connected mentally to the situation until your distress improves on its own. An improvement in distress (sometimes referred to as habituation) might mean that you are much less anxious, bored with feeling anxious, or no longer anxious at all. If you leave the situation or try not to think about it while you are still in a very anxious state, you will only strengthen the fear. 

Repeat or Reinvent the Experience

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After you have analyzed your anxiety ratings, identify an appropriate next step to take. This might be a repetition of the same experiment; the more you practice, the more likely you are to feel more comfortable, more quickly with the feared situation. Or, if you’re feeling pretty comfortable with how things went, this might mean coming up with a new way (perhaps in a new context) to challenge your same fear. Building upon your successes will help you solidify the improvements you’ve made and develop more confidence in your ability to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that are a part of the human experience

Congratulate Your Courageous Self

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No matter how it goes, remember that relationships are hard work. Congratulate yourself on the brave steps you've taken to break free from Avoidance, so that you can build a better relationship with Anxiety. 


Abramowitz JS, Deacon BJ, & Whiteside SPH. Exposure Therapy for Anxiety: Principles and Practice. New York: The Guilford Press, 2011.

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