Fear and anxieties are negative emotions that have a very strong influence on our behaviors. They keep us safe, but sometimes, they can hinder us.

I met a man who grew up in South Korea after the Korean War. Today, South Korea is a wealthy country with a tremendous human capital and electronics industries. Back after the war however, South Korea was in ruins and the country filled with hungry people. This man I knew grew up poor and hungry. He dropped out of school to work for food to help feed his younger siblings. Flash forward to today, and that man is now old, but well-fed and moderately wealthy. I noticed that everytime we met up for lunch, he would finish every single grain of rice on his dish. I pointed it out to him. He said it’s because when he was young, we would not have food everyday, so he gorged himself and ate every last bit when there was food. The experiences from his youth caused habits in him to form long after the causes were gone.

You might be the same.

So the question now is, how do we approach these negative feelings of fear and anxiety?

Bit by Bit — Exposure Therapy

In therapy, one of the most effective approaches to overcoming or coping with fears and anxieties is a process called “systematic desensitization,” more commonly known as “exposure therapy” (wiki).

The idea because exposure therapy is that the cause of our fears will trigger a reaction in us, but if the cause can be small enough, we may be able to bear it. In exposure therapy, a patient with a debilitating fear is exposed to the causes of their fear, bit by bit, in tolerable amounts. That amount increases slowly, until they have built a higher degree of tolerance so that they don’t panic.

Take for example a common fear people have: Ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes. Someone with this fear may have had a bad encounter with snakes when they were younger. This may even lead the person to avoid any bushes or jungle where a snake might hide. It might make them startled at any long and green object resembling a snake, like a zucchini. And if a snake were to appear, the person would panic.

The first step here might be to get a person used to snakes, in a safe way, by simply showing them pictures of a snake. This still will trigger bad feelings in the person, but they will hopefully be able to handle it, due to knowing it is a picture and cannot actually harm them in any way. After the person becomes okay with pictures, the next step would be to show them videos of a snake. Again, the person is safe, but the video adds a more realistic element, causing heightened stress on the person. After the person becomes okay with snake videos, we might introduce a a toy snake to the person.

Exposure Therapy Should Be Done by a Professional

Although the above example of the fear of snakes and using exposure therapy seems very simple, it is not. Every step of the way, a mental health professional needs to assess the fear levels the person has and know when to increase the exposure or reduce exposure.

What a person shouldn’t do is simply throw a person off the deep end to teach them how to swim. In rare cases, this may work positively, but in most cases, a person with such a stressor will panic, flail, flee.

Take for example, this horrific example from a talk show. In it, the host, Maury Povich, is interviewing guests who have very rare and bizarre fears, including one man with a fear of peaches.

Maury Povich, who is not a trained mental health professional, does what he does best: entertains… so he shows a video of peaches, and the man freaks out:

Already knowing that the man cannot tolerate videos of peaches, Maury Povich decides to increase the level of stress by bringing out baskets of live peaches.

If a man cannot tolerate videos of what he fears, he cannot tolerate the actual live causes of his fear.


Social Phobia and Social Anxiety

How about for social situations? The process to overcoming or coping with your fears and anxieties will follow the same process.

Here is a example of how exposure therapy process might look like, starting from the least exposure to the fear stimulus:

  1. Talking with a customer support representative on the phone.
  2. Saying “hi” to the clerk at a grocery store.
  3. Asking the clerk at the grocery store “how are you today?”
  4. Asking a grocery store clerk where the _____ is located.
  5. Going to a restaurant or bar during non-peak times and when they ask what you want, ask them for recommendations.
  6. Go on a stranger chatting website and have a conversation with a stranger.

And the steps are limitless. Ultimately, it comes down to the person administering the therapy, usually a mental health specialist, to have proper judgement to develop and prescribe the right challenges for the person in order to give them enough of a challenge to provoke some fear or anxiety, but not too much so as to make them want to run away.