Fear is a normal and healthy emotion. It gets a bad rap because of how overwhelming and even debilitating it can become. When it serves its purpose, fear keeps us from harmful situations, helps us react quickly when they do arise, and even helps us survive. Fear can prove a phenomenal motivator, whipping us towards achievement. When we begin avoiding certain situations or parts of our lives because of fear, we know we have a problem. This is when fear becomes harmful to us.
Fortunately, we can empower ourselves to take control and overcome our fear. My therapist’s fancy term-of-the-day is systematic desensitization. This is the process of repeatedly exposing someone to a stress-provoking situation and teaching them relaxation techniques to manage the anxiety of the moment. As the person increases their tolerance to the stressful situation and their ability to manage anxiety, a new, more stress-inducing situation can be introduced and the same process is repeated. How does this look practically, particularly with a fear of heights?
First, let us talk about two different relaxation techniques. When experiencing fear, stress, and anxiety, your brain feels like it is moving at light speed, moving from one irrational thought to the next. Grounding can bring you into the moment by pulling you out of your own head to focus on what is present. Whether you close your eyes or focus on a spot on the floor, find what is comfortable and begin breathing slowly in and slowly out. As you breathe in and out, find five things you can feel, five things you can hear, five things you can smell, and five things you can taste. Then move to four things for each sense, then three, etc. Another relaxation technique is to use the Peter Pan mentality by thinking of your happy place. You want it to be a familiar real-life place where you feel safe and relaxed. When feeling anxious, perform the deep breathing mentioned earlier. While breathing, go to the happy place in your head. For example, if you go to the beach in your mind, think through what you notice while you are there: the smell of the salt and wet sand; the sound of the waves and seagulls; the warmth of the sun on your skin and the soft sand between your toes; the taste of ice cold lemonade in your mouth. Go into as much detail as you can while continuing to breathe deeply.
Using these relaxation techniques may help as you encounter stressful situations. You can start small, such as standing on a stool or short step ladder. As you stand there, recognize where you feel the stress and anxiety. Begin using a relaxation technique of your choosing (preferably practice the technique before introducing the anxiety-provoking activity). Repeat this activity while using your techniques until it produces little to no anxiety (or manageable levels of anxiety). Then increase the stressor, for example, by standing at the window of two-story house. Again, repeat this activity while using your techniques until at worst it produces manageable levels of anxiety. In short, continue upping the ante until you reach your ultimate goal. While this might require a lot of work and time, relaxation techniques employed during fear exposure will strengthen your tolerance level and allow you to manage anxiety. Even if you are never truly comfortable with heights, these techniques will enable you to reclaim power over your fear and live the life you want to live.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She also has a special interest in working with athletes and has been bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is in the process of becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant to further her expertise in sports psychology. Prior to her move to Abilene, Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.