Overcoming Fear

Module 1: understand fear and learn the skills to harness it

by Luke Vu PhD.

Well done on getting through the introductory module. This means that you're ready to take on the responsibility of launching yourself and not waiting for someone/something else to make it easier for you. It's great news, because the ball is in our court. So the first level is understanding fear and learning the skills to deal, manage and change our relationship with it. Read on.

Learn to overcome your fears

At the heart of "failures to launch" are typically barriers to launch. Most of the time, that barrier is fear. I've had many young people report that they feel unmotivated, apathetic or disillusioned but once we talk honestly about their barriers, their disengagement from meaningful actions were often, a short-term response, to the fear of failure, judgement or loss. If we repeat this pattern of avoidance long enough, repeated withdrawal feels like de-motivation. Sometimes we misinterpret withdrawal as apathy or loss of motivation and sometimes our ego would prefer it that way.


Ask yourself honestly:

  • Are there things that are good for me and that I want to do?
  • What gets in the way of doing those things?
  • Are my barriers real or are they a way to hide that I'm fearful of pursuing them? 
  • Overcoming fears is a misnomer because it implies that we have to banish fear and not experience them. Its the opposite! I want you to experience fear. Fear is a gift, harnessed well, it is one of the most powerful motivating tools in your toolbox. It is a well understood and ancient idea that a meaningful life strikes a balance between fear and comfort.

    Change your relationship to fear

    There are a few harsh truths to taking about fear. Everything that is good for you, meaningful for you and that you want to do will trigger your fear system. It is expected and it is deeply OK. We often call this experience as "anxiety" which is always linked to some type of or fearful belief or feared outcome. In this module there are 4 very effective core skills (or mental tools) in managing and engaging in fearful tasks, with practice you will find yourself more courageous and doing the things that make you fearful. In fact, you might start to look for fearful and meaningful things to pursue. That is when you've optimised your fear system to serve your longer term goals.


    learn to make fear work for you

    Fear is a strong motivator and will motivate you to act in a way to deal with perceived threat i.e. it often motivates the actions of fight, flight or freeze. The problem arises when the actions that we take in response to fear are sometimes not aligned with our longer term goals. If you work hard to tame your fear so that your actions in response to fear is in line with your goals, you have created a fear system that works for you!

    "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man [sic] is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

    Nelson Mandela

    Tool 1: Identify and assess your fears

    Write your fears down. It's non-negotiable, allow yourself to read what you are afraid of.

    Once you can clearly identify your fears, then you can work out how to work with them. For example, if your concerned about going for that job interview, write down what you are scared of happening:

    Example: "I fear that I will bomb the interview and I wont get this job and I don't think I can handle another failed interview. When will I ever get a job?"

    Just writing that sentence and reading it, gives it a different quality.

    We do this all the time in our minds. Our thoughts don't sound silly but they can look silly.

    Once we can identify fears, we can better assess them objectively.

    "I fear that I will bomb the interview is legitimate". Once you can identify, you are now able to problem solve, can you do something that might change the outcome?. 

    "I won't get this job" is a distortion because you don't know that for a fact.

    "I don't think I can handle another failed interview", is also worthy of challenging because you proactively do things that will increase your ability to handle failure and the interview is still yet to come therefore you have not failed it

    "When will I ever get a job" is another distortion, assuming that you will never find a job. It is okay to feel hopeless (we can work on emotions) but if your hopelessness is based on the "fake" fact that you will never find work then your fear is based on an exaggeration, no wonder it feels terrible! 

    For some, just writing them down with some realistic self-talk or cognitive challenging is enough to reduce the fear to manageable levels.

    Common barriers: The most common mistake is to not write them down. Some people believe that they can do this in their minds straight away and it doesn't have the same effect. Write it down, challenge your fear and with a little practice, you will be able to achieve that fear reduction effect without a pen and paper.  Writing it down is critical, writing it on a whiteboard in front of a supportive loved one is more powerful. Did I mention "writing it down" is important?

    Tool 2: Build and climb your fear mountain

    Once you really develop how to identify and assess your fears, it worth identifying that "thing" or that "activity" that you really want and that is good for you. This could be a driver's license, additional qualifications or a promotion.

    Got it? OK, its a little overwhelming isn't it?

    Perhaps its good for you that job that is a little bit out of current experience and skillset. The issue is, if you keep attending to the top of that mountain, the fear will be overwhelming. Its time to use a fear mountain. i.e. climbing any mountain is really a series of steps. The critical skill is to focus your attention at taking 1 step at a time. Break down that overwhelming fearful task to a sightly smaller task, and decompose that again. Do it until you have about 8-10 steps. Great!

    Notice that by attending at the next step, you will be able to reduce the overwhelming nature of your fear so that it more conducive for action. When you climb one step, refocus on the next step. Keep repeating until the top of the mountain. When you are skilled, you'' be able to generate 2 or 3 mountains at a time

    Tool 3: Face your fears in your mind, then in life

    Condition yourself to the worst outcome and face your fears in your mind. Imaginal exposure will help you condition your fear response to the worst possible scenario. So for example, imagine "bombing" that job interview in the worst possible way (realistically, i.e. no dragons). You turn up late, you forgot the name of the interviewers, they indicate that your not right for the job during the interview. Imagine it in vivid detail, breathe deeply, let your mind and body experience the fear fully and get used to it. Then do it again, and start to notice that the replay isn't that bad, you might even think about ways to manage even if you didn't interview as well as you had hoped. Rinse and repeat, until the fear is reduced.

    Tool 4: Attack your fears

    Learn to use fear as a signal to examine if that activity or "thing" is good for you and meaning. Look for things that are fearful, and allow your brain to recalibrate and learn that those things aren't fearful. Even if they are, you'll learn that you survived them.

    Fearful of public speaking? then go to toast-masters. 

    Fearful of social situations? Introduce and have a conversation with 10 strangers 

    Pushing your comfort zone and pushing the boundaries of your fear intentionally, enhances your abilities in standard environments. Once you give presentations in front of 400 people, you don't break a sweat for 30. 

    A key point, is when you attack your fears, you must keep doing it until it becomes boring. This is a clear and objective internal signal that the fear is no longer present. Then do the task again until your fearful situation becomes mundane. 

    TLDR; In summary, there are 4 mental tools to overcome fear

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      Tool 1. Observe, identify and assess your fear
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      Tool 2. Decompose your fear, and focus on taking one step at a time
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      Tool 3. Mentally expose and prepare yourself to the worse case scenario
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      Tool 4. Voluntarily take on extraordinary fear, to make ordinary fears easy

    Ready to adopt the right mindsets?

    Luke Vu PhD. is a registered psychologist and former award winning university teacher that supports young people transition into independent adulthood. He currently treats clients from his private practice in Maroubra and is an invited speaker to high schools and universities to help young people overcome fear, support recovery from mental health issues, beat addiction and pursue meaningful goals.

    Get in touch today.

    Copyright 2018, Luke Vu PhD.  

    The material presented here is educational in nature and does not constitute mental health advice.