Facing fear can save your life. Fear can inspire a range of positive and negative reactions. It can be a great motivator, create insecurity or stimulate change. The most disastrous consequence of fear is avoiding situations or limiting experiences. About 19.2 million Americans, or nine percent of the population, suffer from fears or phobias. So what are common fears experienced by American adults, and what’s the best way to face those fears? Here are the 10 most prevalent along with advice from licensed psychologists.
1. Fear of Insects
Those creepy, crawly critters are everywhere, and when they take you by surprise in the shower or kitchen sink, it’s natural to recoil from them. Sometimes, though, the fear can be warranted (and even save your life). Some of the deadliest insects and arachnids include species native to the United States desert: the brown recluse (typically native to the Midwest and Southwest), scorpions (usually in Arizona and California), the kissing bug (found in Arizona) and the black widow spider in southern and western states, according to the CDC. So how can you face a fear of insects (but maintain your safety)? Gradual exposure is the best way to slowly minimize the anxiety response, provided you’re not dealing with one of the deadly ones listed above. Try to see the next spider in your kitchen as a living creature with an important place in the ecosystem, and seize the opportunity to face your fear. Instead of killing the spider, find a jar and stiff piece of paper. Place the jar over the spider, slowly slide the paper underneath, and release the spider outside to freedom.
2. Fear of Animals
According to “Overcoming Animal and Insect Phobias: How to Conquer Fear of Dogs, Snakes, Rodents, Bees, Spiders and More,” “An essential component of effective treatment for any animal phobia is prolonged exposure to the animal.” For those suffering intense fears and phobias, it may make sense to have a slow introduction involving looking at photos of the animal before viewing it from afar and eventual direct interaction. According to Max Feirstein, psychotherapist and anxiety disorder specialist in Beverly Hills, how we face these fears is crucial. “Our bodies are wired for survival,” he says. “Mother Nature has built us to respond quickly to danger. If a tiger looked at me, I would want to quickly respond by running, attacking or freezing. If I needed to run from the tiger, that’s a flight response, and I wouldn’t need to worry about my digestion, but I would want lots of energy. That’s a very safe mechanism, and if I climbed a tree, then I used that energy. If I have a trigger and I’m afraid of a spider, the effect of anxiety is much worse than the real consequences.”
3. Fear of Reptiles
Fear of reptiles, particularly of snakes, is a common affliction. Statistically, however, the possibility of death by snakebite is very small. The CDC estimates that while 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States per year, only about five of them die. Venomous snakes include rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and coral snakes, but most species are not poisonous. So for those whose fear of snakes outweighs the real danger, facing the fear can be an opportunity for growth. Al Bandura, professor at Stanford University, came up with the concept of guided mastery, where those with debilitating phobias learn to conquer their fears in just a few hours through building resilience to their phobias. Dr. Feirstein, a student of Bandura, says of this approach, “Conquering fears will help build self-ethics and the belief that you can reach goals. There is a lot of potential for growth for fears and phobias. The challenging part about it is that we see pain or distress as a symptom to make go away with a pill or to fix. The common mistake that people with fear make is to avoid the fear, and that makes them distress-intolerant and builds anxiety. There needs to be a shift in willingness, so that someone can see anxiety not as a symptom to make go away, but as something to challenge.”
Read more: 10 Signs You’re Getting in Your Own Way
4. Fear of Public Speaking
For many, delivering a PowerPoint presentation to a large group trumps even the fear of death. But avoiding public speaking may come at the expense of being able to move forward in a career. Fortunately, facing the fear of public speaking can be done in a supportive environment, such as Toastmasters, an organization that fosters leadership and public-speaking skills in local group chapters throughout the United States. Another approach is to videotape your own speech or presentation to examine delivery and mannerisms, thereby improving your skills and confidence. Others suggest deep breathing, visualizing your success or even visualizing your audience naked.
Read more: 8 Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age
5. Fear of Death
Mortality and fear of death can be treated by numerous methods. Clara Konzevik, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, says that guided visualization and art therapy is an effective treatment for fear of death and other phobias. “While practicing guided visualizations in a gradual manner, the client is invited to imagine him or herself in the feared situation involving as many senses as possible (auditive, olfactory and tactile) to create an increased exposure to the feared situation,” she says. “While being guided through these ‘imaginal exposures,’ the client is instructed to practice self-soothing and breathing exercises. The goal is to associate the feared situation with a ‘relaxed body response’ instead of the physiological normal responses to fear and anxiety.”
7. Fear of Highway Driving
Fear of highway driving is a common affliction. Multiple lanes, high speeds and high-stakes consequences all culminate into anxiety. Psychotherapist John Tsilimparis, author of “Retrain Your Anxious Brain,” says, “For freeway therapy, you work slowly and incrementally to get people back on the freeway.” And Patrick B. McGrath, expert for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, says, “Good treatment is available for phobias, and it’s called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. In ERP, a fear hierarchy is created – a list that ranks feared situations from least to most feared. A therapist works with the patient on slowly doing the tasks (exposures) on the list, while also encouraging the patient to not engage in coping strategies (avoidance or seeking reassurance).”
7. Fear of Germs
Fear of germs and other contaminants is one of the most popular phobias, according to psychotherapist John Tsilimparis Often fear arises when entering a public toilet, eating at a salad bar or touching guardrails on stairs. “Germophobia is one of the worst in terms of obsessive-compulsive disorder spectrums,” says Tsilimparis. To combat fear, he says, “Psychologists use a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy with exposure therapy and mindfulness therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is therapy that helps people restructure their response to fear. Exposure therapy is where you expose people to things they’re afraid of. Mindfulness is lots of awareness therapy through which you develop a new relationship with the phobia. Those are the three most popular ones in general with phobias, but a combination of all three treatments is the only way to get past germophobia.”
8. Fear of Needles
Being afraid of needles, especially at the doctor’s office, is common, but it’s also at cross-purposes with the survival instinct, because good health requires the occasional blood test. One approach to treating this fear involves a specific therapy called ACT, or acceptance and commitment therapy, according to Dr. Max Feirstein. “How do you face fear that builds capacity to get stronger? You can think about it as working out, as in the gym: You exert effort to get stronger, but facing fears is a mental workout,” he says. “It’s not necessary to do it all at once -- slowly shift avoidance behavior toward approach behavior. ACT is a cognitive behavioral therapy term. Avoiding experience or emotions can have a narrowing and constrictive effect on life. Pain doesn’t have to be a symptom to run away from, but something we can learn to tolerate and use as an agent of growth. Pain can be a teacher.”
Read more: 10 Ways You May Be Shortening Your Life
9. Fear of Heights
Fear of heights can limit some of life’s most exhilarating experiences. If the sufferer avoids hiking, rock climbing, traveling by airplane or other activities because of anxiety, it can be prohibitive to leading a well-rounded life. “The mind-body connection is apparent through fears and anxiety responses,” says Dr. Max Feirstein. “There’s an intense physiological response. When people have a strong physiological response to fear, you tend to exhibit escape and avoidance behaviors. Fears can limit our lives. Avoidance behaviors to reduce phobias limit your life. There is a constriction of limiting your life because of avoidance, that’s a problem. Avoidance behaviors maintain anxiety and provide short-term relief -- but long-term expense.”
10. Social Anxiety
Social anxieties can range from simple avoidance behavior like sitting alone in the corner at a holiday party to full-fledged agoraphobia. If you fear that you may have social anxiety, it may be worthwhile to take the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale Test to determine the nature of your social anxiety. Therapy for social anxiety is very effective. “When possible, I create plans of action with the clients for them to take gradual steps in their lives to face the feared situations. Keeping records of progress and journaling and other tools keep the client accountable and motivated in achieving their goals,” says psychotherapist Clara Konzevik. “When the fear or phobia is associated with social situations, such as social interaction or public speaking, role-playing in session can be very effective.”
What Do YOU Think?
What fears do you deal with? Are any of them on this list? Have you ever faced any of your fears? How did you do it, and what was the outcome? Has conquering fears helped you gain confidence? Share your thoughts, stories and suggestions in the comments section below. Maybe you’ll even help a fellow LIVESTRONG.COM community member struggling with a similar fear.