The Secret to Overcoming Fear


Are you irrationally fearful of something? If so, when you come into contact with it (or even think about it) your emotions likely begin to take over and it doesn’t seem like there’s anything you can do about it. A common treatment is to expose yourself to what you’re fearful of, however this takes time and can be very unpleasant for obvious reasons. So, is there another way?


The Secret to Overcoming Fear:

One study recruited women who had a fear of spiders. Participants were shown a total of 45 images (15 pleasant, 15 neutral and 15 of spiders). After viewing each image, participants were asked to rate the intensity of their negative feelings. Before seeing the images though, one group of participants were instructed to tell themselves “I will not get frightened” (the goal intention group). Another group was given the goal of not getting frightened, but were also to set the plan “and if I see a spider, then I will remain calm and relaxed” (the response-focused implementation intention group) Another group was given the goal of not getting frightened, but were also to set the plan “and if I see a spider, then I will ignore it.” (the antecedent-focused implementation intention group). A final group received no instructions.

The researchers found that just having the goal of not getting frightened by spiders did not significantly reduce fear. However, having the if-then plan either to remain calm or ignore the spider reduced fear significantly. Strikingly, fear in these participants was “completely eliminated” to the point where there was no significant difference between them and participants who had no fear of spiders!


Why does this occur? It appears that a fearful response is set off in the first 100 milliseconds after exposure to a stimulus. Just having the goal to not be afraid is “slow and effortful and thus runs into problems when immediate and strong emotional reactivity… has to be downregulated.” In contrast, having an if-then plan cues up the desired response automatically. Using a race horse metaphor, if-then plans

‘outrun’ the initiation of the emotional responses triggered by… fear-eliciting stimuli. As the two responses of staying calm on the one hand and showing fear… on the other are antagonistic, this faster initiation of the staying calm/relaxed response should actually block the emergence of fear… responses.



So, the secret to overcoming fear is to form if-then plans. Examples would be “if I see a spider, I will ignore it” or “if I see a spider, I will remain calm. A quick an easy way to reduce fear!



Gallo, Inge Schweiger, et al. “Strategic automation of emotion regulation.”Journal of personality and social psychology 96.1 (2009): 11.