Desensitizing Yourself To Fear

The human brain has a tendency to acclimate to whatever stimulus it is subjected to. If you lift weights your muscles grow stronger. If you lay sedentary your muscles become weaker.

When you take a drug for the first time the high is incredible. However, as you become a regular user of the drug you become accustomed to it, and the highs becomes less and less dramatic.

These are both obvious examples of desensitization, but there’s another type of desensitization that most people haven’t heard about. Fear desensitization.

An Example Of Fear Desensitization

If you were shy as a child you no doubt remember experiencing social anxiety whenever you had to do any form of public speaking. If you were anything like me you did everything you could to avoid having to speak in front of others.

You may have pretended to be sick, rationalized your way out of speaking, or just spoke the bare minimum when it was time to take the stage. That’s what I did the whole way through elementary school.

However, when I got to middle school I realized something. I couldn’t keep running away from learning to public speak my whole life. At the time I wanted to be a video game programmer when I grew up, and I knew that although most programmers were hermits to some extent, I couldn’t become an elite video game programmer without being able to at least present my ideas to my fellow programmers.

After that realization I made the commitment to start being more talkative. Over the next couple years at school I would often goof off, and assume the role of the center of attention, and although my obnoxiousness was inauthentic and reaction seeking the majority of the time my actions desensitized me to my fear of public speaking.

I’ve since become more socially calibrated in my interactions, but going to the extreme of assuming the role of the center of the attention and doing things most people would consider incredibly embarrassing taught me that there was no reason to fear public speaking.

I learned that most people wouldn’t bother criticizing me because they were far too concerned about themselves, and if I could do crazy things without backlash there was no reason to fear doing standard public speaking.

Gradual Vs Dramatic Fear Desensitization

There are two types of fear desensitization. Gradual, and dramatic. In gradual desensitization you slowly desensitize yourself to fear.

If you’re looking to decrease your fear of social situations you may try just walking down the street and making eye contact with 5 people per day. Then the next week you may ask 5 people per day a situational question such as the time, or where they got their hat. Then the week after you may try starting conversations with 5 people per day, and over time you can gradually desensitize yourself to your fear.

If, however, you’d like to take a more dramatic approach to decreasing your fear of social situations you could throw a party, give a speech to a large audience, or otherwise make yourself the center of attention in front of a lot of people.

Some people like the gradual desensitization while others prefer the dramatic approach. I see it as being very similar to entering a cold pool. Jumping in may be scarier, but in most cases doing so will save a lot of time and anxiety.

Although dramatic desensitization may allow you to transcend your fear more quickly don’t feel that’s your only option. If you only have enough courage for gradual desensitization take that approach. The longer you refuse to face a fear the scarier it becomes so the most important thing is not to let fear paralyze you.


Picture is of the Barrymore Theater shortly before the Madfest Juggling Extravaganza main show began last weekend.

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