Whether it is a fear of intimacy, a fear of heights or fear of financial collapse, the roots of fear are the same, and so is the way to overcome it.
What causes fear? Essentially, human beings fear one core thing_ losing control. That's why agoraphobics (those who fear crowds) are really most afraid of the visible panic that will embarrass them in front of those crowds. It's why those who shy away from romance or those who fear any potentially close relationship are actually worried about self-disclosure and self-exposure that leads to being vulnerable. And it's why those paralyzed by fear in these tough economic times are really most troubled by real or potential losses of assets that are outside their control and that have the further potential to deprive them of independence (which is really a metaphor for control).
Some people are far more vulnerable to fear than others. Some of this may be genetic--the way our nervous systems respond to stress, from birth. But much of it is learned by observing how our families dealt with stress and loss and danger. And much of it relates to whether we were ourselves hurt by having too little control in the past.
Since the cause of fear in so many different situations is the same, it's no surprise that the cure doesn't vary much, either. It comes in four parts:
1. Understand precisely what you fear.
If you fear darkness, do you fear being attacked in the dark or do you fear being alone with your thoughts? If you are experiencing terrible anxiety about the economy, are you fearing poverty, or being judged for not protecting your assets or reproducing your family's rollercoaster economic ride during your childhood? Different people fear the same events and conditions for very different reasons? What is it--exactly--for you? 2. Get more information about what you fear than you want or think you need.
Fear feeds on lack of knowledge; because being uninformed about anything--your stock portfolio or the government's bailout plan or the construction and inherent strength of bridges or ways to protect yourself from being manipulated in intimate relationships--makes the problem feel all encompassing (when it isn't). Knowing the thing you fear cuts it down to size, even if it is still a big threat. Gathering facts has another great advantage: It makes you face your fear a little bit. Once you resolve to collect information, you're already starting to fight back. 3. Resist staying alone with what you fear.
Isolating yourself while thinking about what you fear deprives you of doing what you need to do.
a. Get emotional, organizational or financial support from others by disclosing your thoughts and feelings.
b. Realize that many others fear what you do. This will help you see that circumstances around you, not weakness inside you, almost always is responsible for fear.
c. Assemble a team with the skills to help you face and overcome the situation at hand. For those who fear intimacy, that might mean getting the right therapists or choosing very sensitive friends. For those who fear financial collapse, that might mean polling 6 friends to ask the best accountant or financial planner they know, then scheduling an initial consultation with one of them. 4. Start taking action -- a little at a time, is just fine.
In the financial arena, armed with knowledge, support from others and an expert opinion, you might decide to move assets slowly in one direction or another. You might contact your mortgage bank and inquire about working out new terms. You might hire an accountant to renegotiate credit card debt. In the realm of relationships, you might decide to go on one date--just one--and disclose something personal that you fear sharing (that friends of yours suggest is just fine to share). If you fear crowds, it might mean walking in and out of a mall, as fast as you like. The point is that taking action generally leads to taking more action. And that's the real antidote to fear that paralyzes.
Finally, I think it helps to expect choppy seas and to forgive yourself for getting seasick; all of us fear something, and nearly everyone of us feels overwhelmed more than once in life. Feeling afraid doesn't make you weak; it means you're human.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.