Why courage isn’t everything when it comes to overcoming fears

When I first met my partner, he was petrified of Dentists – not just one, but all of them.

He had an accident that needed dental work when he was a child, and his terrible experience left a deep mark. He avoided any Dentist for years until he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer.

At the time, I had been seeing my Dentist since I was three years old. Going to see Dr O’Connor was like going to visit an old family friend. I shared my partner’s deep fear with him, and he said, ‘If you can get him here, I’ll do the rest”.

It took some doing because my partner’s fear of seeing a dentist felt worse than his dental pain.

Eventually, my partner agreed to give Dr O’Connor a chance.

That first time was a blinding success, and he agreed to go back and start a long series of treatments. I was amazed each time my partner came home and raved about the wonderful Dr O’Connor and his Dental Assistants despite all the needles, drills, and discomfort.

I share this story because, at some point, most people find themselves more afraid of the experience they imagine than the experience itself.

We create vivid mind pictures of the horrible experience we anticipate. The imagined experience and the feelings it generates make us uncomfortable, so we avoid putting ourselves in that situation.

Yet, how many times, when we finally feel the fear and do it anyway, do we look back and wonder why we waited so long?

It’s like standing in front of a closed door in someone else’s house during a blackout at night. The feelings about what could be behind the door are intense, but once we open it, we usually find ourselves in just another room.

Aristotle said: “He who has overcome his fears will truly be free.” We’re working towards that, but how do we get there?

Let’s take a quick look at what my partner did and didn’t do, keeping in mind that it often takes more than one strategy and what works for one person won’t work as well for another.

My partner wasn’t afraid of the unknown because he’d experienced the Dentist before, so seeking to educate himself about what to expect didn’t help him.

He calmly focused on the present and thought about his future if he didn’t go to the Dentist. Every time he noticed related negative thoughts, he asked himself if he was excited about the false teeth in his future. This reframing helped to motivate him to take the first step.

Small goals, like agreeing he only had to see the Dentist once, can be useful. He focused on meeting Dr O’Connor and discovering what work was needed instead of committing upfront to months of dental treatment.

Visualising successfully navigating the situation was hard because he kept seeing himself in the chair, at the mercy of a Dentist with a drill. However, others may find it useful to visualise a successful experience, like giving a presentation or nailing a job interview.

Back then, my partner wasn’t into journalling. Writing down fears and anxieties is a good way of processing, tracking and noticing patterns in emotions. Doing so can help build a deeper understanding of what is causing the fear and lead to insights about how to manage it.

Walking through the door of the Dentist’s office was a big hurdle, but what made the greatest difference was the social support he received once he was through the door. Knowing the Dentist, the receptionist and the Dental Assistants understood and cared about his fears and tried to put him at ease, significantly reduced his negative feelings.

Social support can make a surprising difference.

A clinical study involving survivors of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which 33 people died, discovered that some students felt better in the year after experiencing this tragedy. The study found that students who sought out social support from and developed stronger connections with other students showed decreases in anxiety and depression.

So, the next time you’re procrastinating because you’re uncomfortable with the thought of taking that first step, try to:

  • Focus on what you can control
  • Focus on the first step instead of the whole journey
  • Reframe or distract yourself from negative thoughts and
  • Seek social support.

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