How To Overcome Anxiety With A Fear Hierarchy
Overcoming anxiety is not an easy task.
But, who says that it has to be difficult either?
A few years ago, I struggled with the most basic social skills. Making eye contact with someone, even for a second, was enough to render me anxiety-stricken for hours after.
Mentally, I was in a poor state. Anxiety and fear ruled almost everything that I did and there seemed to be no escape.
Then, one day I read about an exercise which could change it all: the fear hierarchy.
What Is A Fear Hierarchy?
A fear hierarchy (or an anxiety hierarchy) is a tool widely used in exposure therapy.
It is a list of potential triggers for fear and anxiety which you rank from 1 (very little anxiety) to 10 (severe, debilitating anxiety).
The tool is mainly used for treating anxiety (though it is useful for PTSD as well). It involves a very honest, introspective look at yourself and your fears/anxieties.
Once you have your fear hierarchy, you can then begin the process of gradual exposure. Starting with the lowest ranked fears, you would work through them until you had successfully conquered each one.
My Experience With My Fear Hierarchy
I suffered quite badly from social anxiety a few years ago. It was brought on by a number of factors, but the main one was that I had never had the chance to develop adequate social skills as a child.
I found starting and maintaining conversations unbearably difficult. Making simply eye contact was enormous social pressure. Meeting girls was a near-impossible task.
One day, whilst reading a book about social anxiety, I heard of the fear hierarchy and thought I would give it a try.
I made my list and set out to conquer the low-level fears.
I spent almost six hours in Leicester Square walking around, forcing myself to make brief eye contact with strangers until it no longer scared me. By the end of the day, the fear wasn’t gone, but it was markedly reduced.
I have used fear hierarchies since then to overcome many other anxieties such as going to the cinema alone, eating at a restaurant alone, talking to strangers and I was even able to meet and go out with a few nice women.
Was it scary? Yes.
Was it worth it? Hell, yes.
Why Should You Use An Anxiety Hierarchy?
1 – Great Beginner’s Tool
If you are just starting out with trying to beat anxiety, then this is a great beginner’s tool.
It’s easy to understand and even easier to implement.
2 – Easy To Do Alone
Whilst it can definitely help to do this under the guidance of a counsellor, therapist or coach, you can also do this perfectly well on your own.
In fact, doing it on your own may be even more effective. That way, you give yourself less of a crutch to lean on and you can come to rely on yourself to cope with your anxiety.
3 – You Become More Honest With Yourself
Being honest with yourself is a benefit which can’t be understated.
When you complete this exercise, you will have in front of you a list of your most pervasive fears and anxieties. You may find with many of the things on that list that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
In other words, the mere act of getting them down on paper may show you how insignificant some of them are.
You can never know yourself too well and this is a great tool for digging a little deeper into who you are.
4 – Clarity
Before completing your first fear hierarchy, it’s very likely that your anxieties may seem all the same to you. Your fear of public speaking may seem like the same as your fear of eating alone in a restaurant.
However, once you have your anxieties and fears written down and ranked, you can clearly see that there are some which don’t bother you much at all. Yet, there are also others which you will avoid like the plague.
Having clarity of how you truly feel and how anxious you actually are can be a monumental help when it comes to battling your anxieties.
Avoidance Is The Enemy
I once read that avoiding your problems is like pulling on an elastic band. The more you pull, the more the snapback will hurt.
If you keep avoiding your fears and anxieties, they will only get worse. It’s like leaving weeds to grow in your garden. Eventually, there will be nothing left but the weeds.
So, don’t avoid the problem.
Get clear on your fears and anxieties. Face them head on and then you can kick anxiety’s ass.
How To Create Your First Fear Hierarchy
You can make a fear hierarchy for pretty much any area in your life. It could be a hierarchy of anxieties related to work, relationships, family or it could just be a general fear hierarchy.
In this post, I’m going to go through the process, showing you step by step how I created a fear hierarchy for myself in the workplace.
Step 1) Set Aside Some Time
You’ll want to set aside some time to complete the exercise.
Ideally, you’ll put your phone away and find a time when you will not be disturbed or distracted. Early in the morning or late at night could be an effective time.
Step 2) Making The Initial List
You can decide what is the best way for you to do this. However, in the past, I have chosen to either create a mindmap or an unordered list of all of the fears and anxieties I can think of.
In this case, I chose to just make an unordered list of my workplace anxieties.
Working in training and HR, I can’t really afford to let my anxieties rule me. So, I’ve created this list of all of the fears which were apparent to me without much thinking about it.
If you want to go really in-depth with this, then try to spend at least an hour. However, just doing the surface level work can provide you with great benefits.
After all, your most accessible anxieties – the ones which almost immediately come to mind – are likely going to be the ones that are giving you the most trouble at the moment.
Once you have your list, you can move on to the next step.
Step 3) Rank Your Fears/Anxieties
The ranking scale goes from 1 to 10:
1 = very little anxiety
10 = severe, debilitating anxiety
Look through your list and find all of the 1s.
These will be the items which cause you the least amount of anxiety. Mark them clearly and then find all the 2s.
Continue this process until you have ranked every last item on your list.
It’s very important that you’re honest with yourself. Not everything should be a 9 or a 10.
If you’re having trouble making distinctions, then try to compare these anxieties against each other. If you were forced to choose between doing Anxiety A or Fear B, which would you choose?
Use comparisons to make your list as accurate as possible.
Remember, this is just the rough draft so you can revise it as much as you want. If something starts off as a 5 but then you realise it’s actually a 2 or a 7, then update your draft.
Step 4) Rewrite Your Fear Hierarchy
Using your first rough draft, rewrite your fear hierarchy. Starting from the 10s, write them in reverse order down to the 1s.
You can complete this on notepaper or on a word processor.
Once finished, either remove this sheet your notepad or print it off.
The process is now complete.
What Comes Next?
Now you have to face your fears!
Whether that is from visualising how you will cope in future or actually going out and facing your fears one by one starting with the 1s all the ways up to the 10s.
In a few weeks, I’ll be posting the Ultimate Guide to Exposure Therapy which will break down the steps needed to beat your fears and anxieties once and for all.
Being honest with yourself and digging deep to find your fears and anxieties will not be an easy thing. But, once you know your enemy better then you can begin to work through it all.
If learning how to cope with your anxiety is the ultimate goal then creating your fear hierarchy is the first step towards that.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.