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How to Conquer Your Most Common Fears

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Isn't it time you faced up to whatever scares you? Follow our rules to live a bolder, better life.

Conquer Fear of Flying

People tell me that I come across as a confident person. It's true that I have no trouble speaking up at meetings, mingling at parties, even asking for a raise. But those close to me know that the mere idea of navigating a car through Manhattan (or any large city) makes my heart race and my palms sweat. And that I don't go into the ocean past my ankles because, well, sharks are there, waiting. To eat me.

Some people are less prone to panic than I am -- because of their genes or experience or, more likely, a combination of the two -- but everyone experiences fear. This universal emotion registers in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which detects danger and dispatches a "code red" message that results in a cascade of physical symptoms: a racing heart, dizziness, shortness of breath, a dry mouth. You're ready to run. Or fight. Or maybe you freeze.

All three responses served our ancestors, who needed to evade and escape predators. Problem is, our scary situations have evolved, but our body's alarm system remains largely the same. "The brain just hears 'threat,'" says Simon Rego, the director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "It doesn't differentiate between a lion running up to you and your boss asking for a report." You're primed for action, but unless you're the star of a reality show, you're not going to hit anyone or sprint away. Instead you stay put and think about how scared you are.

Anticipating intimidating situations, such as the toast you have to give at your sister's wedding, also creates fear. So does imagining catastrophes, like a car accident or cancer. A little apprehension is a good thing, because it makes you fasten your seat belt and wear sunscreen. But when it goes too far -- an aversion to giving presentations costs you a promotion, or anxiety about flying means that you hardly ever see your niece -- it's time to fight back. Learn how to conquer a few of the most common fears.

You're Scared of the Not-So-Friendly Skies

A phobia is an intense, illogical fear of something. It usually starts when we're children or young adults. Sometimes the trigger is obvious. Nicole Albano, 34, a publicist in New York City, knows exactly what sparked her fear of flying: the movie Final Destination. After seeing the film, the slightest bit of turbulence during takeoff called to mind the opening scene, of a horrific plane crash. "It got so bad that I refused to fly for seven years. It was debilitating and depressing," she says. Then Nicole landed a job that required a lot of travel. Her career at stake, she enrolled in a Fly Without Fear course at La Guardia Airport in New York City, in which she listened to pilots, flight attendants, and mechanics explain how planes work, why they make the noises they do, and the comprehensive safety checks required of the crew. "Flying still isn't a pleasant experience, but I'm back up in the air -- sometimes several times a month and overseas too," Nicole says.

Conquer It: Give Yourself a Reality Check

What's the lifetime likelihood of dying in a plane crash? One out of 7,178. Of being attacked by a shark? Less than one in 264,000,000. Often the odds are so tiny that knowing what they are may help to invalidate those fears, says Michelle Maidenberg, PhD, a psychologist in Harrison, New York.

Conquer It: Get Informed

Check your local airport for classes like the one Nicole took. Or consider taking the online courses offered by Ron Nielsen, a professional counselor and former commercial pilot (fearlessflight.com).

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