1. Hear Out The Fear
If fears are our body’s way of protecting us, it’s a good idea to pause and assess the situation. Check if there is danger. Research shows that this is how HSPs prefer to operate: When we are exposed to something new, we “pause to check”. Doing so allows us to gather sufficient information and think through what to do next. You can harness this to overcome your fear, however, by viewing it as a “first step” — don’t take the fear as absolutely true (maybe it really is safe to swim near the boat!), but take it seriously and evaluate.
When you hear out your fears, it’s like being a friend listening to another friend’s concern; you get a clearer understanding of yourself, your environment, and why you are afraid. Hearing out your fears also helps you address them. Sometimes, as you think it through, you might realize that you are safe or you might find yourself getting familiar with the once-scary situation. You might even notice that the fear subsides on its own. Other times, hearing the fear out will help you understand where the problem lies and get specific assistance.
Here’s an example of how “hearing out the fear” might look:
There was a brook by my house that I loved visiting whenever I needed to think or be alone. It was dry most of the year, but lush bamboo grew on either side, touching leaves mid-air to create a canopy. One morning, while crossing it to get to school, I saw a snake wriggling in the branches as it swallowed its prey. I ran. For a few weeks, I felt wary of going back into the dry stream. But I also missed my thinking spot. Hearing out my fear meant acknowledging that it was a real threat; the brook was known to house venomous snakes and I needed to be careful.
But, because I loved the brook so much, I sat with my fear and thought through it more. I decided to address it: Since the fear was around snakes, I learned more about serpents and how to tell apart the poisonous ones from the harmless ones. Over time, I began to be fascinated by them. Once I had gained enough insight into the situation, not only did I return to the brook, I actually went hoping I’d see another snake.
2. Accept Some Fears (But Not All of Them)
Once we have heard out our fears, we can figure out what to do with them. Now, as humans, we fear numerous things. It could be external threats, like large expanses of water or spiders, or internal struggles — like deciding if it’s worth being authentic when that risks rejection. Not all of these fears need to be overcome. Further, for the HSP, trying to tackle them all might feel daunting and cause overwhelm. (Facing our fears takes considerable energy!) So, be selective about which fears are really worth addressing.
For instance, a friend told me that after experiencing trauma, she was afraid of men. This was affecting her life and limiting her opportunities. Because she wanted to live a fulfilling life without regrets, she decided to work through her fear of men. “I’m also afraid of rats, though,” she continued. “But I don’t think that’s a fear I would bother working on unless I’m going on a show like Fear Factor.” The lesson I learned from her is that we don’t have to try to conquer all our fears. We can pick our battles. And a good indicator of a fear to deal with is if it’s stopping you from doing something you want to do.
3. Imagine the Worst Case — and How to Handle It
HSPs often try to avoid imagining the worst-case scenario, because it can be emotionally taxing, and plenty of well-intentioned others will tell us to try to put our fears out of our mind. But, if you approach it right, the opposite may work better.
Specifically, you might find that it’s helpful to let the scenario play out in your mind, and then plan for how you would handle it. Preparing for setbacks can actually remind us that we can handle the situation. It reduces the intensity of our fear, and increases confidence instead. (In fact, imagining how you’d handle an emergency is so powerful that, according to Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo, it’s one of the factors that gets people to behave heroically in a crisis rather than freezing up.) Plus, if by chance the situation does worsen, you will have a course of action to follow.
4. Practice Skills to Take On Your Fear
Once you’ve done the internal work, you might be ready to deal with your fear. However, you don’t have to face them head on the moment you recognize and understand them. Rather, you can challenge your fears incrementally in simulated environments, getting yourself ready for the real deal. In other words: you can practice.
With practice comes familiarity, and things that felt horrifying to begin with start to get less frightening. Practice also means you can learn more about what alarms you, just as I did with snakes. And you can become more capable of dealing with similarly threatening situations in the future. (For example, If I wanted to, I could learn to swim so the deep ocean doesn’t frighten me.)
I put this into practice a few years ago, after a speech I delivered fell flat: No one laughed at my jokes. There were no nods of understanding. In fact, a friend even slid down in their seat out of embarrassment for me. The experience made me feel self-conscious and afraid to speak in public again.
However, because I love sharing my ideas, I decided to work on this fear. I got in touch with a professional speaker, learned from her, wrote multiple iterations of potential speeches, and I practiced (sometimes looking in the mirror, other times in front of my trainer, family, or friends).
When it was time to give my next speech, I wasn’t afraid. I could engage with my audience and several people told me later that they learned a lot from it. And the more speeches I gave, the more comfortable I became with them.
This same idea is employed in exposure therapy, a psychological treatment that professionals use to help people overcome phobias and anxiety. If you feel like you need extra help dealing with a fear, exposure therapy is a safe, gradual way to do it.
5. Lean Into Your Strengths
My final tip is to look for evidence of your existing strengths. Chances are that you have dealt with scary things before. You might have even dealt with the same fear in a different situation. Remembering that you made it through those sticky situations — and remembering which of your skills and strengths helped you — can be reassuring. If you’ve done it before, you know that you have it in you to do it again.
This is the strategy I employ every time I fly. I used to be very scared of flying (mainly because I got airsick and my ears hurt). But after a few uneventful trips, I began to tell myself, “You know what to do to have a good flight. You’ve done it before; you can do it again.” This self-assurance really helps.