Wellness

Overcoming fear equals freedom. Here's how to do it

A phobia of needles to being scared of heights – our readers tell us how they conquered their anxieties

Social media is awash with inspirational quotes from people telling us to seize the day. But in real life it’s not always that easy, is it? However, psychologists believe that when we break out of our routines, we enter a state of discomfort – and this unsettling feeling helps us perform better and achieve our goals. Occupational psychologist Jivan Dempsey explains: ‘Facing your fears can be incredibly rewarding, because it provides a springboard for change and leads to more motivation and growth.’ Our three readers did exactly that – with amazing results.

The fear: heights

Diane Pierce, 55, is from Crawley.
Married to Phil, she has three children and manages a builders’ merchant.

‘My beautiful daughter, Lauren, passed away the day before her 31st birthday, in August 2016. She’d been diagnosed with idiopathic arterial pulmonary hypertension at 17, a condition that leads to heart and lung failure. But just before she died she asked me to step outside my comfort zone and do something big in her memory to raise money for St Catherine’s Hospice, as they’d cared for her so well.

Lauren’s husband, Pete, had organised fundraising events, such as sponsored football matches and a charity abseil, then one day jokingly suggested I trek the Great Wall of China. I shuddered in horror. I’ve never liked heights – I’d say no even if someone as much as suggested a roller-coaster ride. But I reminded myself that Lauren had battled her illness with such courage and dignity, so surely I could cope with a bit of a climb? That’s how, 18 months after she died, I found myself in China with 33 others, facing a 43ft wall. On day one, I slipped so badly, I nearly fell down a cliff face – two of my fellow trekkers had to help me to safety. Needless to say, my fear of heights increased! On the third day, the fear overpowered me when we reached a particularly high, rocky and narrow part of the wall. The ground below looked so far away, I knew one false move could see me hurtling to my death. I had a meltdown, telling everyone I couldn’t carry on.

But at that moment a butterfly landed on my cheek, and I knew it was Lauren telling me to keep going. I felt a strange sense of calm as I looked straight ahead and, slowly, I found the courage to keep climbing for my daughter. When I finished the trek five days later, I felt so proud that not only had I raised money for the hospice but I’d also conquered my fears for the daughter and best friend I adored. Lauren always believed in me, and she knew I needed to face my fears before I could believe in myself.’

The fear: travelling alone

Rose Robertson, 69, a mum of one, is a senior sales assistant
She lives in London with Darroll, her husband of 38 years

‘My husband and I had a traditional marriage: Darroll took care of everything from the bills to driving, while I stayed at home to look after our daughter, Carly, now 37. The only people I saw outside of our home life were at church. Darroll took pride in taking care of Carly and me, so if I needed to go somewhere, he’d always drive me there or go with me. I never travelled alone – not even on the tube or bus – and I often wondered how I’d manage without him.

But in 2013, my church group organised a week-long visit to the remote Scottish island of Iona, known as the cradle of Christianity. As I looked at pictures of the beautiful coastline, I felt something stir and realised I wanted to go with them.

I hadn’t been on holiday in years, as Darroll was always working so hard. Plus, we had pets and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving them to be looked after by someone else.

Darroll thought the trip was a great idea, but I hadn’t bargained  on how frightened I’d be without him. On the day I was due to leave, I lost my travel tickets and struggled to find the other women in my group at the meeting point. Then, when we were on the train, a log hit the line and we were delayed. By the time I arrived in Scotland, I was in pieces.

I had a fantastic time, however, talking and praying with the other women. And I realised that I could manage alone. When I got home, Darroll was so pleased I’d enjoyed myself. He was concerned that he’d held me back, and encouraged me to go on more holidays alone.

I next booked a five-day walking break to Yorkshire and climbed Hadrian’s Wall – during a hurricane! It was terrifying, as the thunder clapped and lightning flashed around me, but I kept going and was elated to reach the end. Now my confidence has soared so much that I’ve been on tours to Jersey, Spain and Morocco. I’ve made loads of wonderful new friends and I’ve even got a job! Conquering my fear has enabled the confident woman I always knew I had inside to flourish.

I can’t wait to see what I’ll do next.’

The fear: needles

Paula Milner, 35, lives in Northamptonshire with her husband Dan, their two-year-old son Freddie, and dog Patch
She is the owner and founder of The Crafty Lass.

‘My fear of needles started when I was six. I was playing with a tapestry weaving kit when I stabbed my thumb with a needle and gave myself a deep cut. There was no permanent damage, but it triggered a long-term phobia. So much so that I’d try to avoid going to the doctors; and on the rare occasions when I did need blood tests, I’d cry throughout the procedure.

Once, at university, it took over three hours for Dan and the nurse to calm me down before a blood test. I even avoided going to holiday destinations that would require jabs. Then, in 2011, it struck me how much this fear was affecting my life. An injection or blood test should only take minutes, but with me it was hours. As I wanted to have children, I knew I’d probably face more injections in the future, and I realised that I couldn’t continue reacting like this. So, after seeing a social media campaign encouraging people to give blood, I decided to face my fear – this way, I’d be helping others as well as myself.

Before I could change my mind, I booked an appointment, then went to donate alone so I felt less pressure. When I arrived, I told the nurses why I was giving blood. They were brilliantly supportive, encouraging me to do some deep breathing to help me stay calm, which really helped. Also, that I’d made the decision to confront my fear voluntarily meant I didn’t feel quite as panicky. When it was over (in the blink of an eye this time!), I rang my parents to tell them what I’d done. They, and Dan, were delighted.  Getting over my needle phobia has not only made trips to the GP easier, but by the time I had my son in 2016 I no longer spent most of the night before worrying about blood tests. Another great way conquering this fear has opened up my  life is that in 2015 Dan and I booked our honeymoon to Sri Lanka and the Maldives – places I’d always avoided because I needed jabs. Sure, I wouldn’t exactly say I like needles now, but who does? I’m just ecstatic my fear no longer rules my life.’

Facing your fears: psychologist Jivan’s top tips

1. Define your goal

Be realistic – the challenge should be achievable, so you have more chance of being successful. You might not be able to fly to the moon, but you could book a trip to visit NASA.

2. Think confidently

It’s a good idea to visualise yourself achieving your goal. Try to focus on how you’re feeling and what you can hear and see, and allow this to cement itself into your mind.

3. Become a good listener

‘When you’re in a new social situation, ask questions and listen well. People will want to be around you if you show an interest in them. The tendency when we get nervous is to fill in the pauses and do too much talking. Don’t be scared off by a little silence.’

4. Use positive language

It really helps to change the way you say things. So, for example, replace ‘I can’t do this because…’ to ‘I could do this if I…’ This reframes your mindset.

A new opportunity comes up at work, but it involves giving a big presentation – something you’ve never done before. Do you…

You’re invited to an old colleague’s wedding without a plus one and you’re not going to know anyone there. Do you:

You don’t have plans for Valentine’s Day this year, but then a friend invites you to go speed dating. Do you:

You really want to join your local gym for the new year, but it’s ages since you last did any workouts. Do you:

You’ve been asked to join a coastal cliff charity hike but you’re afraid of heights. Do you:

You’ve always wanted to go on a mini break to New York, but none of your friends are free, and you’ve never travelled solo before. Do you:

You’ve had the same long hair for the last 20 years, but your stylist wants to cut it to a flattering, chin-length bob. Do you

Overcoming fear: what's your comfort zone?
Mainly As: Gutsy go-getter!
Congratulations! You’ve become pretty comfortable at venturing outside your comfort zone. But, if you’d like to push yourself even further, here’s some advice from occupational psychologist Jivan Dempsey: ‘Use visualisation techniques – they’ve been shown to improve our ability to stick to a goal. Make an action plan to complete your personal challenge, whatever it might be, and visualise yourself carrying it out – this is what gives really successful people like entrepreneurs and athletes the “edge”, and it can work for you, too.’
Mainly Bs: Comfort lover
Your comfort zone may be a bit too comfortable! If fear is holding you back from new experiences more than you’d like, try this tip from occupational psychologist Jivan Dempsey: ‘Set yourself a number of “baby step” challenges. For example, if you’re afraid of travelling solo, start small with a day trip by train. Then if all goes well, you can push yourself towards a weekend break, followed by flying to Europe, and beyond! As you complete each step – and enjoy the glow from each success – you’ll find a natural momentum building up, spurring you on to the next. Chances are, you’ll very quickly find you can’t stop yourself!’
Mainly Cs: Final-hurdle falterer
You’re almost there! You’re obviously keen to step outside of your comfort zone, but you fall at the final ‘fear hurdle’. Occupational psychologist Jivan Dempsey’s advice may help: ‘It may be that worrying about failure is sabotaging your efforts to escape your comfort zone. Try and catch yourself every time you have an “I can’t” thought, and replace it with an “I can if I…”. For example, take a friend along to a new fitness class, or remember that speed dating can be fun even if you don’t hit it off with one particular person. Whatever the situation is, putting a positive spin on it will help you push through the fear by reframing your thinking.’
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