08/24/2012 12:14 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Is Fear Holding You Back From The Life You Want?


Many of us experience some kind of fear or phobia. It could be spiders, heights, public speaking or something entirely quirky and random. For me, it's always been a fear of confined spaces. It started when I was very young. As I grew older, it evolved into a fear of flying and elevators. And when left unchecked, it became a crippling and terrifying phobia.

The thing about fears is that they're often our own little quirks, our funny personality traits. Sometimes we embrace them, even define ourselves by them. They're part of that rich tapestry of things that makes us unique. But, left unchecked, fears sometimes multiply and compound over time. And then, instead of being part of who you are, they get in the way of who you want to be.

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do." - Eleanor Roosevelt

In my case, my fear grew into a phobia. And my phobia became an obstacle to living the kind of life I wanted for myself. I couldn't get on a plane without taking my anti-anxiety medication. My fear of flying no longer belonged in the "quirk" category. It made me feel anxious and out-of-control. Those feelings of blind panic took over my whole mind and body and I was unable to override them with conscious thought or reason.

For a while, I worked around it. I resigned myself to not flying. I accepted that this phobia was part of me and, therefore, a feature of my life. I found I could get around my phobia by adopting strange workaround rules (like if I always sat in the same seat number on every flight.) But that was only layering more quirks on top of my phobia. It took some time before I thought about it as something I could change, or imagined a possible life without it.

But how to change it? The phobic reactions were so deeply visceral it's more than a mere matter of "trying" or "deciding." As much as inspirational quotes will lead you to believe you can overcome a fear by setting your mind to it, getting over a phobia sometimes takes more than resolve. The resolutions you make in neutral environments often evaporate the minute you're placed close to your "trigger".

I knew I couldn't just overcome this on my own... I needed help but wasn't sure what kind exactly. The first thing I tried was hypnotism. This may work for some people and I believe this process is extremely personal and differs person to person but hypnotism didn't make the tiniest bit of difference for me. Once on a plane, I was still as panic-stricken as ever.

My next stop was a behavioural psychotherapist. I had better luck here. For me, psychotherapy was effective precisely because I was forced to actively work through my physiological and psychological reactions. The light went off when I realized that those reactions run a course and that our bodies and minds are simply unable to sustain that much stress for a prolonged period. The panic then peaks and that peak is the worst of it but then it starts to dissipate.

Most behavioural therapies for phobias are premised on the idea that the phobic reaction is an irrational reaction to a non-dangerous stimulant. The treatment works by "immersion" -- an idea that if you expose yourself to the source of your fear then you'll gradually learn that the fear was unfounded and then your behaviour will change to reflect that new understanding. My therapist simulated a panic attack by making me run up stairs. The breathlessness when I reached the top was a similar physical reaction to my phobic one.

My own panicked reaction ran a course that lasted about seven minutes. This is typical as our bodies and minds can't maintain those states of extreme stress for long and so when nothing bad happens, our mind begins to relax and the physiological manifestations of our stress dissipate with that too. Once I understood the path of that reaction and the trajectory my anxiety would take, I was able to see my phobic reaction within a framework. It became more like any other physical and psychological reaction and therefore became manageable.

That understanding changed everything! It didn't immediately stop the panic, but eventually my behaviour was reconditioned. As I began by coping with my phobia, I moved towards overcoming it. And as a constant reminder of why I wanted to overcome the phobia, I kept a list with me of all the ways life would be better if I could get on a plane -- the privilege of traveling, beautiful destinations, evolving as a person etc. I still have it on my BlackBerry today and look that list over whenever I feel the pull of those old patterns of behaviour.

Whether it's a physical phobia or a psychological fear, both get in our way. They become reasons we opt out of certain aspects of life. Maybe your fears are holding you back from the kind of career or relationship you dream of? Maybe your phobia, like mine, is getting in the way of simple enjoyments and the everyday sense of confidence and control you want in your life.

"Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it." - Bill Cosby

In one way, phobias are easy to spot because they're usually external things we can point out. With a phobia, you know what's scaring you. With other kinds of fears, it can be more challenging to pin down what exactly you fear and why you're holding yourself back. But sometimes the biggest obstacles to happiness are our own internal ones. What's important to realize is that on the other side of those obstacles awaits confidence-building, new opportunities and untold joy.